Kunqu, China's oldest known operatic form, enjoyed its peak of popularity in the 18th century, when the best performers were adored by hundreds of thousands of fans. But by the 1940s there were virtually no dedicated Kunqu theaters left. With its archaic lyrics, sluggish melodies and tedious narratives, the 600-year-old genre a precursor to the better known Peking opera was all but dead and understandably so. The Peony Pavilion, one of the most famous Kunqu works, consists of 55 scenes, and a performance can last more than 20 hours. Witnesses to such a grandiose relic should worry less about falling asleep and more about slipping into a coma. When, in 2001, UNESCO declared Kunqu a "masterpiece" of the world's "intangible heritage" it seemed less like an honor and more like an epitaph.
But 32-year-old Zhang Jun is changing all that. The newly promoted deputy director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Theatre, Zhang believes the art form can be salvaged to appeal to audiences in the era of roaming broadband and speed punk. During the past two years, he and his team have compressed epic Kunqu scripts until they play about as long as the average movie, and introduced other innovations. The changes are finally starting to draw respectable audiences of curious Shanghainese. At last summer's three-week run of Palace of Eternal Youth, a Tang dynasty love tragedy, two thirds of the audience were under the age of 35, and the production netted $92,000 modest by the standards of Covent Garden or La Scala, but equal to the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Theatre's revenue for the whole of 2006. "It thrills me to know that these are the same melodies listened to by people 600 years ago," says 25-year-old marketing manager Ma Jun, a new fan.
"If we take a modern approach and employ the right marketing, the chance for Kunqu is there," says Zhang, who with his artfully shredded jeans and spiky hair looks more like a pop artist than an opera devotee. In fact, he is a former member of Wind, a popular Shanghai hip-hop outfit, but says he has always had a special affinity for Kunqu, which he began studying at the age of 8. "It was a torturous experience," he recalls. To train for the acrobatic maneuvers that are sometimes incorporated into a Kunqu performance, "we were forced to squat for hours and we were beaten any time we slacked. But I realized I couldn't live without it." So much so that he turned down the chance of pop stardom to pursue Kunqu. "If you are choosing between your life and your dream, it is not difficult," he says. "And I know Kunqu is my life."
Zhang has brought plenty of pop sensibility to his calling. Aside from abridging traditional storylines, he has experimented with modern plots, adapting a short story by early 20th century writer Lu Xun. The singing is also faster and the traditionally empty stage is now filled with backdrops and props (classical Kunqu required audiences to simply imagine the scene according to cues in the lyrics). A new breed of younger artists has also been cast in plum roles, which by tradition were always reserved for veteran performers. Prominent among the fresh faces is Zhang himself. The onetime rapper played Emperor Minghuang in Palace of Eternal Youth, opposite Shen Yili, 32, who has won fame for her willowy dance technique.
It's still early days. Zhang's predecessor at the theater, Cai Zhengren, 66, says Kunqu "is like a person trying to stand up after many years of paralysis it still needs support." But help is appearing. The city of Shanghai has started paying two-thirds of the tuition for students pursuing high-level Kunqu studies grants that encouraged a sixfold increase in applications from 600 in 1997 to 4,000 in 2004.
Inevitably, some purists are voicing objections to what they see as the bastardization of a Chinese cultural icon. Zhang's relentless promotion of modernized Kunqu he thinks nothing of hiring out performers for appearances in shopping malls and as entertainment at A-list cocktail parties hasn't helped. "Kunqu should be left alone," says Gu Duhuang, a veteran Kunqu director from Suzhou and one of the most virulent critics. "It is heritage and no heritage needs to be modernized." Not all young people are convinced either. "The true beauty of Kunqu is in its singing, as well as the extreme simplicity in its props," says Wen Jingya, of Peking University's Kunqu club. "In a garden scene, there is no garden, everything is in the imagination. It's distracting when you see a stage filled with sets."
But what's better, an empty stage or a full house? Ex-director Cai, who can point to a 50-year involvement with Kunqu, has no doubts. "Kunqu has to develop under a different social environment to survive," he says. Adapting old works to attract new fans is "exactly what I hope for the future."