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Kun Qu Opera Comes to Raleigh

For those sitting in eager anticipation at the Fletcher Opera Theater at the Progress Energy Center in downtown Raleigh Sunday night, "Kunqu" opera is something few have experienced before. When most people think of Chinese opera, the first, and perhaps the only thing that jumps into mind is the world-famous Peking Opera (Jingju). However, only few know that the experience that lay before them not only predates Jingju, but is one of Jingju's major sources of influence. The Society of Kunqu Arts' performance of "The Jade Hairpin" is about to show Chinese and American audience members alike, the "Mother of Chinese Operas."

Kunqu is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, dominating Chinese theater from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It is a harmonious mixture of traditional Chinese instrument playing and highly trained, well-choreographed actors singing and performing on-stage. The plots are elaborate, while the props minimal. The actors through their carefully crafted moves and meticulously honed facial expressions can make even the barest stage set feel like a beautiful summer garden.


In perhaps one of Kunqu's most famous stories, the four-act "The Jade Hairpin," actresses Mei-ti Yue and Grace Wang become a looking glass for the Raleigh audience into the enchanting and romantic world of ancient China. The first act of the play, "Qin Tiao (Flirting with a Zither)" introduces Yue as Pan Bizheng, a young scholar who had just failed the civil service exam and has gone to stay with his aunt, the head of a Taoist nunnery. There his paths cross with a beautiful and talented young nun by the name of Chen Miaochang (Wang). Pan is taken by the melodies that Chen plays on her Zither and the story that ensues is a timeless tale of a love-smitten boy chasing the girl he loves. I won't give the rest of the plot away here.


No doubt the biggest treat for me was the live symphony of traditional Chinese musical instruments that acted as the narrator for the love tale, as I have never personally experienced such a performance in person before. From the flute to the "er-hu," the talented musicians of the opera spared no expense when bringing this integral part of Kunqu culture to life. Their flawless performance nicely complemented the dialogue and singing of the main characters and provides the perfect backdrop for their romance. And as an added bonus, each musician was also garbed in traditional Chinese clothing which really helped to set the mood for the audience that evening as they started off into the majestic world of Chinese opera.


The acting and performance of the all the actors in "The Jade Hairpin" were equally impressive to the instruments. Yue and Wang are incredibly talented, showcasing their many decades of theater experience. Mei-ti Yue, who is revered in China as a 'national treasure' in the performing arts, plays an exciting and convincing Pan. Her voice is always full of energy and her movements precisely calculated. Her masterful performance was nicely complimented by Grace Hui-hsin Wang's interpretation of Chen Miaochang. Though Wang and the character she plays differ quite a bit in age, she plays the part very convincingly. Her choreography and mannerisms skillfully reflect that of a young woman just starting off in life and finding her first true love. But the unexpected gem of the evening was the performance of Jingan by performer Jing Shan. Speaking in plain and modern Mandarin dialect (when most of the rest of the characters spoke in poetry), Jingan provided welcome anachronisms and humor that lightened up what sometimes seemed to be very tense situations. Though not an integral part of the plot, his involvement in the opera was nothing short of refreshing and was a good way to take a break from the serious poetic dialogue and opera singing.

Finally, as the opera was presented in various dialects of Chinese, the production troupe was good enough to provide a very legible LED panel at the side of the stage that flashed the actors' lines both in English and Chinese, wherein lies my only gripe with the production. While the Chinese portion of the displayed dialogue is a direct transcription of the script, I kind of wish that the English was not. The reason is that most of the dialogue/singing within the play is heavily poetic. Even the average Chinese person watching would have to be well versed in Chinese poetry to understand it all. Thus, for the typical American, much of the true meaning of the script could be lost in translation as a lot of the vocabulary and imagery used is not apart of the person's vocabulary. It would have been nice if the translated English subtitles were instead "interpretations" of the Chinese meanings so as to make the story more engaging for Western audiences.

Unfortunately, the performance of "The Jade Hairpin" was a one-night only engagement. Those lucky enough to attend was treated to an unforgettable combination of highly gifted and experienced performers and an orchestra of classical Chinese music that paints a picture in the mind like no other media can. For those who missed it and are in any way interested in Chinese culture and music, the next time there is an opportunity to watch a Kunqu presentation by the Society of Kunqu Arts, Inc, I urge you to do yourself a favor and jump on it. You will be in for a treat.

For those wanting to learn more about both Kunqu and the talented individuals that made up the troupe that brought Raleigh "The Jade Hairpin," please visit http://

By Cindy Sun (The China Star, vol. 115 2009 Issue 10, May 21)

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