Now the Epic Tale Can Be Told

New York-based Ken Smith writes about music and opera

Seated behind a table during rehearsals in rural Massachusetts for "The Peony Pavilion," Chen Shizheng looks less like an opera director than a military commander.

Facing his Chinese forces with complete attention, he wields control on many fronts, not just the usual view through the proscenium but also the sides of the stage, which are fully exposed to audience view.

Chen himself is holed up in his space, his open libretto and musical score surrounded by folded newspapers, half-eaten pastries and partial cups of cold green tea. Every so often, the melodic stream of Chinese both off stage and on is punctuated by ringing from his cellular phone, linking him to headquarters at Lincoln Center, where this production will premiere Wednesday through Saturday.

The military metaphor may seem awkward in the company's rehearsal setting at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires, but a year ago it would have been particularly apt.

At that point Chen was completing nearly a year's work on location with the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company, to bring his extravagant 22-hour production of "The Peony Pavilion" to last summer's Lincoln Center Festival. The 400-year-old classic then made headlines when Chinese cultural authorities shot it down for being "feudal, superstitious and pornographic."

Over 10 days of tense negotiations, Chen and festival director Nigel Redden fought for the production's life. By the end, Chen and Redden won a Confucian, face-saving compromise: You get your sets and costumes (which Lincoln Center owned, having invested more than $500,000 in Chinese labor and materials); we keep the 53 actors. Not much consolation for last summer's ticket-holders, but for Redden at least it offered some promise for the future.

After a few months of recovery, both from the strain of creating the monumental production and the struggle to save it, Chen began a task nearly as formidable--taking a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience and re-creating it--largely from scratch.

"This year [the company] is different," the once-again-stressed Chen admits during a break in the rehearsal, "but essentially, it's the same production. The vision is still the same."

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"The Peony Pavilion," by Ming Dynasty poet and playwright Tang Xianzu, first entered consciousness at Lincoln Center back in 1997, when the festival's founding director, John Rockwell, became determined to stage an authentic "Ming 'Ring,' " as he called it, comparing the 1598 work to the 19th century Wagnerian epic. Though "Peony" has long been considered the masterpiece of China's kunju tradition (one of the ancient tributaries flowing into Peking opera), much of it had been lost and a complete production had not been staged--even in China--for more than a century.

With the Peking opera-trained Chen as guide, Rockwell visited China's kunju companies with opera director Peter Sellars in tow, and, for a time, Rockwell envisioned presenting two contrasting versions--Chen's historical reconstruction and Sellars' radically personal interpretation.

Sellars and Lincoln Center soon parted ways, however, and the American director's vision has since proved prescient: By having Chinese emigre composer Tan Dun compose a new score and working with the expatriate kunju community in Los Angeles, Sellars avoided dealing with the People's Republic of China altogether. As a result, his version is still touring the world.

Chen's production, on the other hand, was at first proclaimed a model of cultural exchange. Besides its all-Chinese cast, it employed hundreds of Chinese craftspeople to make the costumes and sets. Chen, exercising Western notions of authenticity, took great pains to deal not just with the historical script as reassembled by scholars, but also with historical means of presentation.

Chen put on stage not just the central "Romeo and Juliet" love story of "Peony," but also myriad subplots touching every aspect of Ming society, including warriors, prostitutes, scholars, even ghosts. The audience was free to come and go during the performance, just as in the 1500s, and vendors once again strolled through the audience offering tea.

But after a well-received preview performance, Shanghai cultural director Ma Bomin impounded the sets and costumes and unilaterally rescinded the contract with Lincoln Center, which had been signed by the China Cultural Ministry and Ma's own regional bureau.

Ma refused to specify what changes would solve her problems with the production, and Chen wasn't particularly interested in making scattershot deletions of scenes and dialogue that might fall into the "feudal, superstitious and pornographic" categories.

"It was Tang's intention to poke fun at Chinese society--the problems of arranged marriages, of improper conduct by politicians, of religious hypocrisy," Chen says. "All the references--sex and all--are in the original version."

It's possible, however, that some of them might have surprised Ma. In China now, fewer than half of the play's 55 scenes are performed with any regularity. Chinese literary scholars cite both censorship and natural atrophy as the causes.

"Some of the scenes which were very avant-garde for the 1500s were already out of date 100 years later," says Ben Wang, senior lecturer at New York's China Institute, who teaches courses on "The Peony Pavilion" and will be lecturing at the Lincoln festival this year. "Tang had a way of writing about sex by hiding the juicy parts inside double-entendre references to classical literature. But by the 1600s, the masses had no idea what he was talking about, and the educated classes enjoyed both pornography and literary classics--just not in the same work."

Others have speculated that Ma's decision was less about sex and superstition than it was about issues of authenticity. Pornography may be in the eye of the beholder, but even for some of Chen's supporters, his lavish production--which includes an onstage duck pond, and actors preparing for their roles "backstage" in full view of the audience--violates the simplistic, stylized kunju aesthetic.

"Men and women rarely even touch onstage," says Wang, referring to a lovemaking scene that Chen staged (albeit behind a sheet). "Stage props, too, are always at a minimum because having a real flower onstage would only compete with the magical illusion."

That the Chinese-born Chen had returned as a naturalized American to lead a Chinese company fueled the jingoistic fire, Wang admits. Strident complaints about inauthenticity ring hollow since no one alive is in a position to determine the historical from the evolved tradition.

"There are some scenes that even master performers in their 70s don't know how to play because they've never seen them," he says. "Being from China, I feel very torn about this production. Imagine if the first time [Shakespeare's] 'Othello' was performed outside of England, the show was modernized and set in Harlem."

For his part, Chen says he's not imposing his own views as much as deleting obvious anachronisms, such as the proscenium stage, which he points out entered the Chinese theatrical tradition during this century with Stanislavsky.

"The problem with most Chinese," he says, "is that they look at their tradition today and can't imagine that it wasn't always this way."

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For the Westerners at Lincoln Center, "The Peony Pavilion" started off as a multicultural parallel to the period-instrument movement, but it soon took on a life of its own. First as a spectacle of enormous proportions, then as a free speech cause celebre. And then there was the matter of Lincoln Center's half-million-dollar investment in sets and costumes.

"Sometimes if something doesn't work out, you think, well, it isn't meant to be," says Redden, whose tenure as festival director began with the doomed "Peony" negotiations in Shanghai. "But in this case, seeing how vibrant and alive this production was made me more and more committed to it. It was just too good."

Once the sets and costumes arrived in New York from Shanghai, Lincoln Center began its quest to revive the production by extending an invitation to the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company to perform at the 1999 festival. Redden soon realized it fell on deaf ears.

By September, he was thinking in more informal terms. He and Chen sent feelers out and in a short time had received commitments from the original Shanghai female lead, Qian Yi, and the music director, Zhou Ming, both of whom agreed to resign their positions in the Shanghai company to come to the United States.

Whether or not Chen could re-create his vision, he says, largely relied on whether he could secure his female lead. Du Liniang, the "Juliet" of "Peony," carries the epic; she's onstage for much of the 22 hours. He needn't have worried, Qian, who is acknowledged as her country's premier Du Liniang, jumped at the chance to finish what they had started. "This is a role most Chinese girls know, but they only understand it as they grow older," says the 23-year-old Qian through a translator. "When I was 17, I first learned the motions; now I know the feelings.'

"Imagine if a Wagnerian singer who had trained in the tradition her entire life finally got the chance to perform 'The Ring,' " Redden says later. But his analogy leaves out one crucial point: "The Ring" is standard repertory, while this is the first complete "Peony" in at least a century.

With his star in place, Chen began the grueling part of his work--putting together a company of 48 actors, musicians and technical workers knowledgeable in Chinese opera. Half, he says, come from various opera companies in the People's Republic and are here on limited work visas; half are recent immigrants in the States.

"From the beginning last summer we were assured that the opposition was a local Shanghai issue, and the way things have turned out this seems to be the case," Redden says. "The government in Beijing has put up no blocking whatsoever."

For the necessary funding, Redden only needed to enlist one figure, financial news service entrepreneur and Lincoln Center board member Michael Bloomberg, who took on the cost of remounting the production as his own private free-speech issue.

"I am concerned with freedom of all kinds and will do anything I can to help society in this regard," Bloomberg says. "Watching a play or listening to an opera offers a glimpse of a different world, a different perspective, [with] insights into cultures we would not be exposed to otherwise."

Bloomberg News Service monitors, carrying the performances--instead of stock quotes--will be positioned in the lobby during the festival's three marathon cycles of "Peony": six three- to four-hour "episodes" over multiple days. The monitors will allow audience members a chance to leave the hall (there are no intermissions) and still keep in touch with the action on stage.

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Since January, Chen himself has spent plenty of time in front of video monitors. The production's co-producer, Paris' Festival d'Automne, had videotaped the Shanghai company's dress rehearsals back in the spring of 1998, and those tapes have been Chen's best connection, beyond his memory and that of Qian and Zhou, with his initial conception.

Using the videos to supplement his own notes, Chen began reconstructing his staging. The new costume technicians also used the videos to figure out how more than 800 silken garments fit together to make more than 550 separate costumes. Beginning March 1, the company began four months of living, eating and breathing "Peony Pavilion"--12 hours a day of rehearsals, first at Jacob's Pillow then at the White Oak plantation in Jacksonville, Fla.

"[In China], opera companies [provide] housing," Chen says. "It is almost like a commune. Here we too have members of the company cooking together, eating together."

Now that Lincoln Center has its own resident kunju troupe, Redden is already looking to its admittedly limited future. After its Lincoln Center performances, the company continues to Festival d'Automne for its originally scheduled appearances in Paris and Caen this November and December, followed by the Sydney Festival in January 2000.

After that, the prospects grow dimmer. Although Lincoln Center is developing a tour of the production designed for European summer festivals in 2000 and beyond, Redden admits that given the cost and scale of "Peony" there may be a limited number of takers.

At this point, though, Chen sees the adversity that has beset the project as having its advantages. It really has breathed new life into an ancient tradition.

"In China, there are limits to what [actors are] willing to do in that environment," he says. "There are some things in the text that might be considered too racy or too risky." In America, he adds, away from the strictures of tradition, the thrill of discovery is in the air.

"This is not a schoolroom," Chen says. "Chinese opera is passed on by oral tradition, and here you have young actors coming up to older ones and asking, 'How do I do this?' But even the musicians in the pit have a say about what looks good."

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"The Peony Pavilion," Lincoln Center Festival, LaGuardia Concert Hall, 65th and Amsterdam, New York City, Wednesday through Saturday, July 16-18, July 23-25, $55 per episode, $210 per cycle, (212) 721-6500.

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