A stage to make Chinese opera more accessible

Kunqu Opera artist Zhang Jun design a mixture of lecture, communication and performance to popularize the 600-year-old art form. The show is staged at Jing'an Cultural Center.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhang Jun explains the lyrics of a Kunqu Opera classic during a special show at Jing’an Cultural Center to promote the 600-year-old art form.

In Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It,” the character Jaques proclaims: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” Zhang Jun, a Kunqu Opera artist, would agree as long as he could perform on an intimate small stage setting.

The 43-year-old artist has spent the last several years performing at grand theaters at both home and abroad. But his love for the small stage never diminishes.

Last month Zhang presented a special show in the 199-seat theater of Jing’an Cultural Center. He loves the way he becomes one with the theater, performing with a united and forceful energy.

He confessed it was “particularly satisfying. In the small theater, we are close. We are face to face, and we can feel each other clearly. I can feel the whole theater is gripped by the atmosphere that I create.”

The monthly show is, in fact, a mixture of lecture, communication and performance designed to popularize the 600-year-old art form.

Zhang performed the act “Crying to the Statue” from the Kunqu Opera classic “The Palace of Eternal Youth” in his first show. He also played Emperor Tang Minghuang (AD 685-762), who mourned for his dead concubine Yang Yuhuan. Before singing, he spent more than half an hour explaining to the audience the poetic lyrics, music and related allusions.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhang plays Emperor Minghuang (AD 685-762) of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-709) in the Kunqu Opera classic “The Palace of Eternal Youth.”

“It is a great way to have Kunqu approach youngsters,” he said. “Kunqu originated from ancient poetry — the consummation of China’s traditional art. The beauty of our mother tongue is deep inside all of us, whatever vicissitudes. It can be awakened by poems and Kunqu.”

Zhang believes the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the audience is just as important as the performance itself and is in no hurry to begin singing after it. The same can be said about the show’s interval. He believes the interval is not just a short break, but a golden chance for the audience to make friends and exchange ideas.

“The interval is an interesting time,” he said. “Different people come to the show yet share the same hobby and that is why I arrange a tea time to talk.

“Kunqu itself is a lifestyle in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The audience hear my explanation, drink tea and enjoy my performance. They can be easily immersed in a poetic lifestyle. And I am so proud that the majority of audience today are young people.”

Widely known in China as the Prince of Kunqu Opera, Zhang is also a member of UNESCO Artists for Peace. The challenge for Zhang now is to promote Kunqu to foreigners. He has tried several different ways. He has tried to sing Kunqu in jazz and also attempted to blend it with Western classics.

Ti Gong

Zhang Jun plays in “I, Hamlet."

“I, Hamlet,” which premiered last year, is his latest effort.

“I had a worldwide tour from the US, the UK to France. People like it,” Zhang said. “They are too familiar with the story, but it’s a brand-new way to interpret it, with Chinese philosophy. I sing in Chinese and English. In fact, I want to go further. Next year, I will have a campus tour in New York.”

Zhang’s passion for his art shines throughout. Don’t miss an innovative performance from a truly unique man taking an ancient Chinese art form to the masses.

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