“The Kunqu Theater”

by Hans H. Frankel, late Professor of Yale University

Kunqu is a form of Chinese musical drama. But it is more than just drama: it is a combination of play, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and musical recital. It also draws on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances: mime, farce, acrobatics, ballad recital, and medley, some of which go back to the third century BC or even earlier. It is first and foremost a performing art: people come to see and hear a performance. The plot is usually familiar to the audience, or else made available through a prose summary. In the performance of Kunqu three media work simultaneously and in harmony: words, music and dance.

The name Kunqu refers, strictly speaking, to the musical element of this art form, and is connected with the fact that one of the principal types of regional music that went into the making of Kunqu came from the district of Kunshan (near Suzhou, in modern Jiangsu Province). This type of regional music goes back to the fourteenth century. It was given shape in the sixteenth century by Wei Liangfu and other, who combined it with three other forms of southern music and with northern tunes from the drama of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Wei Liangfu and his collaborators standardized the rules of rhyme, tones, pronunciation, and notation, making it possible for this regional form of music to become a national standard. By the end of the sixteenth century, Kunqu spread from the Suzhou region to the rest of China, and became the most prestigious form of Chinese drama. It has survived until the present, but from the late eighteenth century on it was crowded out by the less sophisticated and less complex Beijing opera.

The language of Kunqu is not the dialect of Kunshan or Suzhou, nor is it standard Mandarin. It is an artificial stage language, a modified Mandarin with some features of the local dialect.

The text and music are of two kinds, easily distinguished. On the one hand there are arias that are sung and accompanied by the orchestra. These are elaborate poems of high literary quality. On the other hand there are prose passages (monologues and dialogues), that are neither sung nor spoken but chanted in a stylized fashion comparable to the recitative of Western opera. Sometimes there is a combination of the two styles (unknown in Western opera): one of the characters sings while another one chants at the same time.

Music is an essential element of Kunqu, but it differs from Western opera in that there are no individual composers in the Western sense, The author of the drama chooses from an existing repertory, according to fixed conventions, because the tunes exist not in isolation but in sequences, There is a delicate relation between words and tunes: Chinese is a tonal language, every word has a “melody,” as it were, and the musical air is superimposed on the word melody, without interfering with it.

The principal musical instrument of the kunqu orchestra is the djzj, a horizontal bamboo flute. The singer and all other instruments are subordinated to the dizi, Other optional instruments in the Kunqu orchestra are Sheng a bamboo wind organ or Pan’s pipe). sanxian (a three­-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed-fiddle), luo (cymbals), gu (drum), and ban (wooden clappers). Kunqu music is based on the Qupai principle, that is to say, the poetic passages of the play are written to fit a large number of fixed tunes, known as qupai. Thus the author must conform to the pattern of the particular qupai in regard to the number of lines, the number of syllables per line, tonal sequence, and rhyme,

In addition to music and words, there is the third element of dance movements and gestures, rigidly stylized. The three elements work in harmony to convey the meaning and the esthetic effect desired. Dancing in Chinese musical drama is different from western ballet in that the whole body is engaged. There is an intricate language of gestures and body movements. The meaning of some movements is immediately understood even by the uninitiated, other movements are stylized and conventional. The movements involve not only the body but also the costume (especially the sleeves), and objects held in the hand, such as a fan, the costumes are elaborate and conventional not realistic. For example, in historical plays. The costumes are not varied according to the period of the plot but rather to fit the role of the character,

Stage equipment is kept to a minimum. There is no curtain, and few props: sometimes a table and a chair. The stage setting, like the costumes, is not meant to be realistic. The actors appeal to the audience’s imagination and conjure up a scene or a setting (such as a door, a horse, a river, a boat) with words, gestures, and music.

There are two kinds of actors: professionals and amateurs. The professionals were held in low esteem, down to modern times. The amateurs were highly educated members of well-to-do families. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were two kinds of theatrical troupes: (1) slave boys or girls owned by wealthy families; they performed to entertain the families and their guests at banquets, weddings, birthdays, and funerals. They could also be rented out to other families. (2) Professional actors’ troupes; they performed in public squares or in front of temples. Some troupes always stayed in the same town, others traveled. Actresses were often courtesans, carrying on two professions simultaneously. The training of actors was always long and arduous, starting at an early age. The pupils had to learn acting, singing, dancing, and acrobatic skills. The actors wear no masks but do some face-painting, to indicate the role and the character (for example, whiteness indicates cunning). In old times, acting groups usually consisted of all-male or all-female troupes, hence men acted both male and female parts, and women acted both female and male parts.

As mentioned earlier, Chinese theatre-goers go to see a performance rather than a play. Therefore a theatrical program often consists not of a single play but of selected scenes from different plays. In fact, some of the classical plays are so long that a complete performance would take up many hours or even several days.

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