Staging a classic, with a twist

A time-honored Beijing theater presents a new take on The Peony Pavilion, which has long stood as one of the most celebrated Kunqu Opera, Chen Nan reports.

By CHEN NAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-08 08:59
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Actress Yu Xuejiao plays Du Liniang, a beautiful young woman, who falls in love with Liu Mengmei, a handsome scholar, played by actor Shao Zheng (right), whom she meets in a dream. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Half an hour before the Kunqu Opera show started, Shi Shuyue, who specializes in hualian (which translates as "painted face" and refers to actors playing male roles with striking appearances and high social positions), put on his shoulder pads, which make him look like a strong and powerful god.

With his face painted red, black and green, Shi looked in the mirror and decided he was ready to perform as the judge of the underworld courtroom, who investigates the nature of people's deaths and determines their punishments or rewards in the afterlife.

The role is from The Peony Pavilion, which is one of the most-performed Kunqu Opera works by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu.

"Usually, I appear onstage during the second half. But for this adaptation, I am the first character the audience will see," says Shi, who has been performing with the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, a Beijing-based theater company and the only professional platform in northern China dedicated to the roughly 600-year-old genre that originated in the country's south. The art form is inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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