To glean some insight into the Peony Pavilion, Artsweek interviewed the man responsible for bringing it to Santa Barbara: Pai Hsien-yung. Also known as Kenneth Pai, he is a prominent Chinese-American scholar, thinker and writer. His novels include Crystal Boys and Taipei People. But Pai is best known in Santa Barbara for his decades-long tenure as a professor of Chinese Literature at our very own UCSB. Both the adaptor and producer of the upcoming production of the Peony Pavilion, Pai’s lifelong love of Kunqu opera inspired him to make a striking modern adaptation of the opera, gathering an enormous cast and crew of artists from across China for a two-year whirlwind tour of China and California, ending in Santa Barbara.
How was the Peony Pavilion when it premiered in the Ming Dynasty?
The Peony Pavilion in its day was very controversial. Its hero is a young, high-borne [who] breaks with conventional Confucian ethics and morality in the name of … love. It was written in 1598 in a period of intellectual turmoil in China.
There are similarities to Shakespeare.
Its author, Tang Xianzu, was a contemporary of Shakespeare. The two authors have much in common. They were part of a literary renaissance, a romantic outburst. Like Shakespeare, it’s very sublime and refined, but it is also very earthy.
How was the new edition of the Peony Pavilion received in China?
This production has been hugely successful in China. It played 75 performances in two years, appearing at all of China’s top universities and festivals. Over 100,000 people have seen it performed. It’s very exhausting, but very exciting.
This production boasts a very large cast and crew.
It’s an extremely diverse group of people that produced this production. It is a joint project between Taiwan and mainland China, and has artists from across the region. It’s almost a miracle that such a huge and diverse group of people got along so well. Everyone contributed their best.
Adapting the opera from its original 55 acts – a twenty-hour play – to 27 scenes and nine hours is a daunting task. Did you have any guidelines during the rewriting?
When deciding what stayed and what was removed, we looked for the scenes that best supported the theme of young love. The story, like Shakespeare, has many subplots, and many of them had to be removed for time. There are many digressions we were unable to include. We tried to focus as best as we could on the passionate search for love.
Were there any elements intentionally changed?
We tried to adhere faithfully to the original. The biggest difference was in incorporating modern advances in lighting and stage design. We tried to link the present and the past, inspiring the same thoughts and reactions that the Peony Pavilion has been producing for centuries.
How do you think this production will affect future multicultural events at UC campuses?
I think this production will change the approach to multicultural events at UCs. It’s the single largest multicultural event so far. It’s had a series of lectures, set box office records and had a very positive response. I think this success is due to the universal appeal of the story, production and the two young leads.
How were the two leads prepared for the role?
We were blessed with two masters of the Kunqu opera from two different companies. The opera takes decades of training. The two leads had already undergone extensive training since they were 14 years old. For this production, they underwent rigorous training from both masters, working 9-5 daily for a year. It’s very, very tough. I put them through hell.
How did the People’s Republic respond to the production?
The Chinese government knew that this production would do well in America, but they did not directly support it. Our funding came generously from two private foundations, one in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong.
I had heard that Kunqu opera was, until recently, considered a dying art form.
The Cultural Revolution was a huge blow to Chinese cultural heritage, one that we are starting to recover from. This production revitalizes a part of that heritage. It’s a recovery of what was nearly lost.
The Peony Pavilion is being performed across California. Do you think there is anything about California that makes it more receptive to this art form?
California is a place where East meets West. It has a large and active Chinese community, and almost all people here are willing and eager to learn about Chinese culture. For the Chinese community, it’s something of national pride. And American audiences love it. They are always coming up to me, telling me how much they loved the costumes, the performances, saying it’s a magnificent production.
Is there anything you feel UCSB students should know about the play?
It’s coming back to my hometown! It’s a good play for UCSB students. It’s very romantic; it’s about a young student falling in love. Everyone in Santa Barbara, including Chancellor Yang and Mayor Blum, has given their fullest support.
Any final comments you would like to make?
Go and see the show!
Peony Pavilion Preview
“From passion, a dream was born, and that dream turned into a play.”
So said Tang Xianzu, the Ming Dynasty playwright and author of the Peony Pavilion. Itself a play of dreams, shared and fulfilled, it’s not likely that even Tang Xianzu dreamed that 400 years later, his play would be performed internationally, in a country that did not even exist in his lifetime, right here in Santa Barbara.
As part of the Fall Arts & Lectures series, Santa Barbara will be hosting a performance of the Peony Pavilion. The production is a modern adaptation of the Chinese Kunqu opera, adapted and produced by Hsien-yung Pai, known as Kenneth Pai in Santa Barbara, where the Chinese thinker and novelist worked as a professor of Chinese Literature at UCSB. Pai, with a team of artists, Kunqu experts and performers from across China has already led the production, a joint Taiwanese-Chinese production, through a lauded two year tour of Chinese and Californian universities and theater festivals, concluding in Santa Barbara.
Kunqu opera originated in west-central China in the Ming Dynasty. A combination of song, dance and occasional acrobatics, it began as recitation of epic poems. Far removed from its European counterpart, Chinese opera is defined by its richly ornate costuming and make-up, high, melismatic melodies and restrained, intricately choreographed movements. The Peony Pavilion, by far the most popular and most performed Kunqu, was Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece, a work of high fantasy and bright romance.
The Peony Pavilion follows a young, high-borne woman, Du Liniang (Shen Fengying) who is not yet engaged to marry. Spurning her studies to spend time in the garden, she has a dream of a handsome scholar with whom she consummates an affair, abruptly ended when she is woken by falling petals. Elsewhere, that same young scholar, Liu Mengmei (Yu Jiuling) awakes from an identical dream under a willow tree. Also touched by the dream, he travels to Du Liniang’s hometown for an upcoming examination.
Du Liniang becomes completely infatuated with her dream scholar, wasting away with love for him. After seeing in a mirror how sickly she has become, she puts all of her effort into painting a portrait of herself at her full beauty, asking that it be buried in the garden with her body when she expires from longing. The scholar Liu Mengmei finds this portrait, falling in love with it. After a sympathetic judge of hell releases the ghost of Du Liniang, she reunites with Liu Mengmei, returning to her body after he opens her tomb. The two lovers, finally together, embark on a journey to win their parents approval, be cleared of grave robbing charges and be lawfully wed.
The Peony Pavilion is recognized as a national treasure of Chinese culture, being performed for centuries. Peony Pavilion and the Kunqu opera inspired poets, writers and thinkers for generations. The art form suffered a huge blow during the heyday of Chinese communism, when performances virtually stopped.
On Monday afternoon, the entire cast and crew were welcomed to Santa Barbara at a reception on the sixth floor of UCSB’s Humanities and Social Sciences Building. With many Santa Barbara notables present, including professors from UCSB’s East Asian Studies and Arts & Lectures residents, who enthusiastically greeted the shy cast members, many of whom are young enough to attend UCSB. Armed with cameras, the young cast seemed just as curious and charmed by the foreign clime of Santa Barbara as the UCSB faculty was with their presence. The cast was welcomed to Santa Barbara, and introduced by Kenneth Pai in a brief speech.
“We’ve toured all over China and California,” said Pai, “and now we are here for our grand finale in Santa Barbara.”
Following the reception, the entire cast piled into two airbuses behind HSSB. Settling in amid the blue striped seats, they whispered and laughed. Their tour was led by young UCSB students, who gave the tour in English, with two other UCSB students translating into lengthy Chinese explanations.
“Those are the Santa Ynez Mountains. Behind them is the Santa Ynez Valley. Many movies have been filmed there, including ‘Seabiscuit’,” junior Van Tieu, the tour guide, explained.
“What about the wine tasting?” half of the bus responded in excited Mandarin.
On Tuesday, Mayor Marty Blum gave a mayoral proclamation at City Hall, heralding the performance, images of which currently grace every flag along State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara.
“We are so honored to host the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre as it presents The Peony Pavilion,” said Blum. “Their poetic dance and musical artistry is a romantic love story dating back over four centuries. This is a performance that should not be missed!”
The Peony Pavilion will premiere to a sold-out house this Friday at 7 p.m. in the Lobero Theatre. It will continue through the second act on Saturday at the same time, concluding Sunday at 2 p.m.