A Special Evening of Kunqu Opera and Cultural Exchange in Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden

Amidst the buzzing nightlife scene in downtown Portland stands the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a haven of serenity. Despite it being only one city block, the garden boasts a lake, a tea room, and several pavilions. The garden was built in close collaboration with artisans and designers in Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, China, and it hosts events and activities that celebrate various aspects of Chinese culture. On the evening of July 8th, the garden became the setting for a one-of-kind showcase of Chinese operatic theater, specifically Kunqu Opera, which originated in the Suzhou region.  One of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, Kunqu was the forebearer of the more well-known Peking Opera and was a very well developed and sophisticated form of art. Kunqu’s popularity decreased after the 18th century and especially during the Cultural Revolution, during which it was banned because it was incompatible with the new ideals. However, the international community recognized the cultural significance of the art form in the 21st century, and UNESCO named it one of the “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

 While Kunqu is seeing a revival in China, performances are rare in the states and typically involve performers coming from overseas to share the practice. This unique event in Portland featured performers Yu Liu and Tao Xiaocheng as well as scene presenter Hu Chunyan, actors from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater who traveled overseas specifically for this special show. Commissioner Carmen Rubio and a representative from the Chinese Consulate of San Francisco highlighted the vibrance that the Portland-Suzhou sistership has brought to both cities, as well as the importance of cross-cultural exchange in an era of increasing divisiveness.

Before the performance began, there was a hair and makeup demonstration session where attendees could interact with the performers while they were getting ready and ask them questions. The only drawback of this session was the small room it was held in, which filled up quickly and left many peering from outside the doorway. For those who were able to squeeze into the room, they learned various interesting tidbits, such as how the hair pieces were made of real hair and that historically, men played characters of both genders in Kunqu. The makeup style helps to indicate what type of character is being played. For example, in the case of the young scholar, the pinkish hue around his eyes indicates that he is a young man.  In addition to the demonstration, there was a small gallery with information around costumes, common character archetypes, and famous operas. These interactive aspects allowed attendees to appreciate the artistic sophistication of Kunqu instead as well as the aesthetic beauty of the performance.

Because full-length Kunqu operas can run over 20 hours, this event was only able to give folks a brief preview into what the performances can look like. There are two distinct styles of performance within Kunqu: prose, heavily stylized or intonated speech, and arias, which are sung melodies accompanied by an orchestra. In this performance, the orchestral accompaniment was pre-recorded. The actors performed four excerpts from “Peony Pavilion,” which tells the story of a maiden, Du Liniang, who falls in love with a scholar, Liu Mengmei, whom she meets in a dream. Lovesick and forlorn upon her awakening, Du Liniang falls ill and passes away, but returns as a ghost to meet Liu Mengmei, ultimately coming back to life through the power of love. Each scene was performed at a different location around the garden. The first excerpt “Interrupted Dream” was performed at the Moon Locking Pavilion in the middle of the lake, and in this scene, Du Liniang dreams of her encounter with Liu Mengmei. The picturesque backdrop of Lan Su garden makes the performance even more ethereal, as if it were a scene in a historical drama. The only thing that would have made the scenes picture-perfect would be if the suspended lanterns were light pink instead of a bold magenta.

The second scene, “Search for the Dream,” was a delicate solo performance atop a rock waterfall formation in which Du Liniang searches futilely for her dreamscape lover. Kunqu performances typically occur with limited props and stage setup, which makes it really easy to adapt to different performance locations. The long-sleeved white robes can be considered a prop as the sleeves accentuate arm movements, and the embroidery on the robes can also add significance to the story. In this performance, Liu Mengmei’s robe is decorated with pink cherry blossoms and Du Liniang’s with blue butterflies, referencing the story of “Butterfly Lovers.” That story has several parallels with “Peony Pavilion,” most strikingly the grief-induced death and the message that love triumphs above all. The final two excerpts, “The Portrait Recovered” and “Consorting with a Ghost,” follows Liu Mengmei as he discovers and unites with his lover.

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Over 400 Portlanders attended the sold-out event, and the interest and genuine curiosity of those who attended serve as promising hallmarks for continued cultural exchange. For many attendees, regardless of ethnic background, this experience was an introduction to the complex art form of Kunqu, but for many others, this was a sort of cultural homecoming, an opportunity to reconnect with their heritage.



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