Beijing troupe to perform ancient Chinese art form

The Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre will present the art of Kunju to Dartmouth in performances of “Walking in the Garden,” “The Peony Pavilion,” “The Crossroads,” “Borrowing the Fan,” and “Zhong Marries off His Sister” at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hopkins Center.

The dynamic cast, consisting of 25 actors, singers and musicians, represents a tradition that has taken shape during a period of over 400 years. As the only Kunju troupe north of the Yangtze River, the Opera Theatre is characteristic of the culture and customs of Northern China.

Encouraged and supported by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the company was founded on June 22, 1957, and has won over 50 performance accolades since then, including both the Plum Blossom and Wenhua Awards.

The Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre performs throughout the year in Beijing and is highly popular with tourists. Foreign acclaim recently inspired the company to tour outside of China, enabling it to share the magic of Kunju with audiences throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Kunju is similar to other Chinese opera forms in its dramatic portrayal of characters, use of Ming Dynasty period costumes and basic set design.

Kunju music, however, differs greatly from that of traditional Chinese opera. Its soft accompaniment of bamboo flutes, sheng organs and saxian lutes provides a contrast to the more familiar tones of the Peking Opera’s shrill two-stringed violin.

One of the most engaging aspects of Kunju performances are their intriguing plots. Tonight’s program will include four classical operas, all of which were composed several hundred years ago.

“The Peony Pavilion” is considered to be the masterpiece of Tang Xianzu, a celebrated Ming playwright known to many as the “Shakespeare of China.” This opera tells the story of young Du Liniang, who dreams that she falls in love with the hansom Liu Mengmei. When she awakens to find her lover gone, she dies of a broken heart. However, led by destiny, Liu Mengmei comes upon her grave and, empowered by love, brings her back to life.

“Borrowing the Fan,” an excerpt from the full-length opera “Journey to the West,” portrays the hardships endured by the Buddhist monk Tang, who must pass through the Flaming Mountain of the Himalayas to procure sacred religious scriptures. He encounters the evil Iron Fan Princess on his journey, and is only able to defeat her with the help of the brave Monkey King and his resourceful companion Sun Wukong.

The troupe prides itself on the quality of its performers. Leading actor Wang Zhenyi has received many national performance awards. Gu Feng is known for his boundless energy, which won the nickname “Whirlwind Gu.” Dong Hanggang has earned much critical acclaim with his skill in singing and martial arts. Wei Chunrong merited national recognition with her portrayal of over 20 leading roles throughout her lengthy career.

Because it is most often enjoyed by cultured audiences, Kunju has been called “the elegant drama.” A combination of enchanting melodies and brilliant poetry, the art form is well known for its subdued singing and dancing.

The Beijing Kunju Opera appears in Spaulding Ausitorium tonight at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the Hopkins Center box office.

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