Following a week of promotion about UCSB and Santa Barbara, the “Peony Pavilion” opened Friday night at the Lobero Theatre to a sold-out house, one of the most diverse the Lobero has ever seen, dressed in everything from T-shirts to tuxedoes. Notable attendees included the Mayor of Santa Barbara, Marty Blum, UCSB’s Chancellor Henry Yang, a multitude of faculty of UCSB’s East Asian Studies department and a host of other Santa Barbara notables: arts patrons and opera goers, all equal in their enthusiasm for an art form they had never before witnessed.
An international joint production between China and Taiwan, the “Peony Pavilion” is a modern production of a Chinese Kunqu opera first produced at the turn of the 17th century. This production, adapted and produced by Chinese thinker, author and former UCSB professor Kenneth Pai, has enjoyed an immensely successful two-year tour in China and California, concluding last Friday in Santa Barbara.
The “Peony Pavilion” follows the romance of two lovers: a young lady of high status, Du Liniang, and a handsome scholar, Liu Mengmei. Du Liniang, spurning her studies to play in the garden, has a dream in which, under the blessing of a pantheon of flower spirits, she meets a charming young scholar with whom she consummates her passion. She awakes to find her fantasy is only that, and wastes away pining for her dream lover. As she approaches death, she paints a portrait of herself in her full beauty, asking it to be hidden by her burial site in the garden. Expiring from love, the performance ends as Du Liniang, wreathed in a crimson train, takes one last look back before continuing her journey into the next world.
And that’s only the first night. At nine hours, the “Peony Pavilion” arched over three nights of performance. The second night sees Liu Mengmei and reunited with the ghost of Du Liniang, culminating in Du Liniang’s resurrection and her marriage to Liu Mengmei. The third night sees the couple endure further difficulties as they try to win the blessing of their parents and their people. All three acts are propelled by the energy of its young actors and enthusiastic audiences.
The set designs were minimal but surprisingly evocative. Other than the physical props, the only scenery was the occasional backdrop, usually large strips of graceful Chinese ideograms. Only a single backdrop, a blur of gold and acid green, represents the garden in which Du Liniang has her dream. Du Liniang’s dance with her handmaiden, working from their sparse surroundings, create in the audience’s imagination a lush garden of wonders, realized when Du Liniang’s dream begins in earnest and the garden is filled with gliding, ephemeral flower spirits.
As the opera was sung and spoken in traditional Chinese, translations were screened on two large but surprisingly discreet electronic scoreboards, which listed each lyric in English translation. Aside from the stray non sequitur (a favorite: “When will the crystal moon toad break waves?”), the subtitles were simple and succinct, straightforwardly conveying the dialogue. Although some of the poetry of the language was lost in translation, the haunting, melismatic strains of the singers more than made up for it.
And the music is the most foreign aspect of the entire “Peony Pavilion” experience. Before seeing the “Peony Pavilion,” I had heard Chinese opera singers pejoratively compared to fighting cats. Although the vocal style does take some getting used to, the familiarity is well worth the effort. Even the male lead sings surprisingly high, deftly switching between a natural countertenor and an unbelievably full falsetto at the turn of a note. Although the structure of the songs is not so distant from that of European opera, the style of the songs, with their unique timbre, long, fluttering melodies and the buzzing and clashing of Chinese zither and symbols couldn’t be anything further from European opera.
The most sublime aspect of the entire production is the presence of the actors themselves. Each movement, slowed to a prosaic dance, carries a grace that is incomprehensible unless witnessed. Combining stage, performance, ballet and pantomime, the movements of all the performers were as surprising as they were enchanting. In Du Liniang’s dream, a troop of lavishly dressed flower spirits descend upon the stage, shuffling their feet so fast and quietly that they appear to float onto the stage, weightless as the banners fluttering above their heads.
Even the stars’ unblinking eyes are trained for painstaking grace, with the female lead Du Liniang’s particularly expressive, penetrating across the auditorium from a pink splash of eye shadow and sweeping mascara. The cast trained and rehearsed for a full year for this production, and it’s easy to see that the effort paid off. With humanity and palpable passion, the actors of the “Peony Pavilion” keep its airy spring romance earthy, nurturing an emotional core without which the melodrama would surely fall flat.
With the successful opening night of Pai’s production, it is clear why the endeavor has enjoyed such success. By taking everything wonderful about Kunqu opera, and streamlining it in a fashion both novel and respectful, Pai and company have created an experience not unlike Du Liniang’s dream: sublimely strange, brilliantly colorful and unlike anything Santa Barbara has seen before.

As part of our continuing “The Peony Pavilion” coverage, we interviewed a notable community leader who has been active in the experience since the start: our own Chancellor Henry T. Yang.

What personally interests you about this production?
I am very proud of the work of professor Kenneth Pai [the producer]; I have read many of his books and seen his films. He has made extraordinary contributions to world literature. For the past 20 years, professor Pai has dedicated himself to reviving the 500-year-old Kunqu Opera, and introducing it to a new generation of young people. In 2001, [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] proclaimed Chinese Kunqu as one of the 19 international masterpieces of the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

How have you felt about the community’s response to this project?
Our campus and our Santa Barbara community have always been very appreciative of art and culture events from all over the world. I am delighted by the positive response to “The Peony Pavilion,” including the cover story in last week’s Independent and the official proclamation by Mayor Marty Blum and the Santa Barbara City Council of this week as “Peony Pavilion Week.”

Do you have any comment you would like to make to the UCSB student body about the “The Peony Pavilion”?
Professor Pai has taken the 500-year-old tradition of Kunqu and made a beautiful gift to our university, to our community, to the world, and most of all, to the young people of the next generation.
I understand that more than 500 tickets were sold to students at a significantly discounted rate. I hope that this has been a memorable learning experience for our students, and that they had great fun!

How did you enjoy the production?
I thought it was a wonderful and truly unforgettable experience.

Did you have a favorite scene?
My favorite scene was the one in Book I (on Friday night,) when Du Liniang is wandering through the garden. Although we in the audience cannot see the garden, she is able to walk across that spare stage and use elegant and poetic words to evoke not only the beauty of the garden and the sky, but also the passion it inspires in her. The entire performance was a stirring tribute to the power of music, language and culture.