Veteran Kunqu Opera Artist Sings Praises of Spirited Troupes

ByCang Wei September 14, 2021
Kunqu Opera performer Wang Fang has witnessed many ups and downs of the traditional art form over the past 40 years. [For China Daily]

 

Wang Fang, a Suzhou native, has given her heart and soul to Kunqu Opera. Wang, who has twice won the Plum Performance Award — China's top award for theater and opera performances — started to learn the traditional art form in 1977. The then 14-year-old immersed herself in its beauty, and witnessed many ups and downs related to Kunqu in the following 40 years.

Born with a melodic voice, Wang loved to sing and dance when she was little. She performed frequently, and was recruited by the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Troupe when she was in middle school. However, her parents refused the troupe's invitation, insisting that she should concentrate on her studies and not drop out of school. After members of the troupe visited the parents repeatedly and showed great sincerity, they finally gave their agreement.

Learning the traditional art form was never easy. She started to learn how to pronounce words, sing them lyrically and make gestures gently. As an actress playing a role of martial artists at first, she had to spend extra time practicing kung fu movements. Years later, Wang used the word "unimaginable" to describe how hard the days were when she first learned Kunqu. She was soaked in sweat when practicing movements in summer, while in winter she often had chilblains on her hands when training in dilapidated classrooms with broken windows.

"But I was young and determined at the time. No matter how difficult, I always got up early the next morning to practice," Wang recalls. "I never complained to my parents because I didn't want them to worry about me."

Wang says she did not love Kunqu at first, but in her early 20s, when she watched the show Peony Pavilion performed by Zhang Jiqing, a master of the art form, it clicked.

"I was shocked," Wang says. "Her every movement was full of elegance and delicacy. Each of her lines and songs was perfect. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Kunqu for the first time in my life, and it has stayed with me since."

Now, Wang has herself become a master of Kunqu. Her performances have impressed generations of audiences and helped to promote the art form among young people.

"Kunqu combines poetry, songs, dance and music and requires the wholehearted input of performers," Wang says. "The performers then present what they feel for the audience. Such a process of precipitation and presentation of abundant artistic elements is why Kunqu impressed me the most."

Wang has performed abroad many times before. She says she was surprised to find many foreign audiences liked the art form. And while some didn't understand the lines sung in classical Chinese, they appreciated the performances.

Kunqu Opera performer Wang Fang has witnessed many ups and downs of the traditional art form over the past 40 years. [For China Daily]

 

However, as one of the oldest Chinese operas, Kunqu was thought to be outdated and required patience to enjoy, especially among the young generations. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, with audience numbers falling and a shrinking market, many Kunqu troupes found it difficult to sell tickets and had to disband.

The Suzhou Kunqu Opera Troupe played for free at the time, but Wang and her colleagues found that the performers often outnumbered the audience.

"We all felt lost," she says. "As performers, we could face many difficulties but being ignored by the audience was the worst."

To make a living, Wang once worked part time at a wedding photography studio to help brides put on their makeup. But her enthusiasm for Kunqu made her quit the job that gave a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan ($464) and return to the troupe, which in 1995 could only give her 200 yuan a month.

"When I look back at those days, I understand that traditional art forms could only be revived if the country developed well," Wang says. "Only when the country is prosperous, can people's lives get better and they can spend more time on spiritual pursuits."

Kunqu was listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2001.With help from the provincial government and Suzhou's cultural, travel and information departments, Suzhou has provided free Kunqu performances for students since 2007. The artists have given performances to more than 400,000 students since then. They have also given lectures at local schools.

"Compared with the older generations, Kunqu is more acceptable to the young generations," says Wang. "Some students who listened to the lectures in school have become professional performers."

In recent years, Suzhou has established many Kunqu theaters for young performers to practice at and for travelers and locals to enjoy the art form. Skilled performers are also given the chance to participate in large shows.

"I believe the charm of Kunqu will never fade," Wang says. "Now, the country is paying more attention to the preservation and revival of traditional cultures."

She says more people appreciate the art form today and that the persistence of Kunqu troupes has helped.

 

(Source: China Daily)

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