Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera first appeared in the Kunshan area of what is now Jiangsu Province, and became popular across the country in the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, long before the birth of Peking Opera and other local operas. Emperors, officials, intellectuals and the populace appreciated them as an integral part of their leisure. Kunqu Opera gave birth to a dozen Chinese local operas, including Peking Opera.  As Kunqu Opera catered more to the highbrow tastes of royal families and intellectuals, it gradually lost favour with the common masses. During the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), it became nearly extinct.

After the turmoil of that time, Kunqu Opera was still loved by modern intellectuals, who, like their ancient counterparts, were intoxicated by its art, a perfect combination of literature, poetry, dance, music and local opera. Nowadays, young people prefer almost any other form of entertainment to Kunqu Opera. Films, videos, games, pop music, disco and karaoke, all are better than what they see as old-fashioned and dull. Kunqu Opera has a very small, but very devoted audience.

Kunqu was the origin of many traditional Chinese operas, including the Peking Opera.  It is also famous for its poetical and refined dialogues and elegant and gentle movements. In spite of its charms, Kunqu Opera is facing difficulties, which can be seen in its dwindling audiences. Some performers are even seeking to change their careers for better incomes. Currently, China has six Kunqu Opera theatres with only 600 practitioners. Thus, China is taking measures to protect and revitalize Kunqu Opera. The government will build more theatres for audiences and performers. The United Nations has joined the Chinese Government in strengthening protection of the 600-year-old Kunqu Opera. A senior United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) counselor, Sevastian Veg, came to China on July 25, 2001 to discuss with Chinese officials ways to protect and develop the opera. Veg inspected the Beijing-based Beifang Kunqu Opera ‘Theatre –and Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Theatre to get first hand knowledge about the current status of the opera.’ UNESCO is co-operating with the Chinese authorities to revitalize the Kunqu Opera. UNESCO has consulted with local governments on the latter’s l0-year plan aiming to bring more audiences to Kunqu Opera. Veg said UNESCO has helped local governments to preserve the operas’ cultural heritage in the form of a fund-in-trust sponsored by United Nations membership countries.  UNESCO listed Kunqu Opera in a catalogue of 19“oral and intangible heritages” of the world on May 18, 2001.

The seven-act Kunqu Opera, features Yang Yuhuan, a tragic heroine who lived in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  Emperor Xuanzong’s favourite concubine, she was said to have been forced to commit suicide by the emperor. But there is another version of the story, which says that with the help of Japanese statesman Abeno Nagamaro, ‘Yang Yuhuan escaped death and fled to Japan, and eventually settled down there. She played the role of cultural ambassador, promoting understanding and exchanges between the two countries. The creative opera includes orchestra, music, opera, dance and drama for the first time.

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