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Tang Xianzu’s Kunqu opera graces the capital

Long before becoming China’s first UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage, Kunqu Opera was already a celebrated art form in China. This year, the art form is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of the great Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu. Here in Beijing, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe began its world tour over the weekend with Tang’s “Handan Dream,” also known as “Four Dreams in the Camellia Hall.”

The down-and-out scholar Lu Sheng dreams of a life of fortune, power and women. An immortal grants his wishes through a dream where be comes a high-ranking official, marries into a wealthy family and wins the first place in the imperial exam by means of bribery.

The drama fleshes out the seamy side of high ranks in the feudal society. Leading actor Lan Tian says it is really challenging to play a role that spans 50 years.

“My voice is kind of sharp and it took me a long time to figure out how to play Lu Sheng as an 80-year-old man. Another thing is that playing ‘Lu Sheng’ doesn’t need to have big circular movements like we usually do in other Chinese operas. Like this. (playing a line) It looks indecent, but that goes with the character. My teacher says I am Lu Sheng when I play him pathetic,” he said.

Handan Dream is one of Tang Xianzu’s four classical plays, which also include the Peony Pavilion, the best known and the most staged. Aside from Kunqu opera, these stories are also widely adapted into a variety of Chinese folk operas today.

Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest surviving forms of Chinese opera, dating back more than 600 years. It was listed by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage in 2001. Since then, Kunqu Opera has gained an increasing popularity in the country, even surpassing Peking opera.

Kunqu is the oldest folk opera in China. Known for its grace, beauty and delicacy, it dominated the country’s theater scene for almost 300 years, until Peking opera took over in the late 1800s.