The Freer and Sackler
in conjunction with
Wintergreen Kunqu Society
Portraits In Motion:
Chinese Kunqu Theater
from The Palace of
August 5, 2006, 3:00 pm
Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art
1050 Independent Ave., SW, Washington, DC
* Thanks to Professor Chang Jingcheng, Ms. Chen
Santzu, and Mr. Wu Dongshen of
Pong Yi Qu Ji (蓬瀛曲集) , Taiwan, for helping the preparation and
interpretation of Chinese librettos.
The Palace of Eternal Youth (Chang
sheng dian 長生殿) is a full-length (50 scene) play that treats the famous and
tragic love story between Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) of the Tang dynasty and his
favorite imperial consort Yang Yuhuan, also known by her court title, Precious
Consort Yang (Yang Guifei). "The Banquet" (Xiaoyan, 小宴) is an excerpt
that constitutes all but the ending of Scene 24 "Startled by the Rebellion" (Jingbian
驚變). Indulging himself in his lovemaking with Consort Yang, the Emperor has
become lax in attending to affairs of state, and unknown to him, trouble is
growing on the border, among his own troops. The time is autumn, and the
imperial garden is decked out in the brilliant colors of the changing leaves.
The emperor orders a small feast in the garden. The couple arrives, holding each
other's hands, and stroll through the garden, entranced in each other's gaze.
The emperor orders simple dishes for them to enjoy and then dismisses the
imperial entertainers. He asks Consort Yang to sing a new song recently composed
using the lyrics of the famous and talented poet Li Bai. As they celebrate the
occasion and each other, Consort Yang becomes intoxicated, which makes her
appear even more lovely. She is finally led away, and our excerpt comes to an
end. In the last part of the scene, which is not being performed today, the
peace and tranquility of the love between emperor and consort is shattered by
the report to the emperor that one of the emperor's generals, An Lushan, has
rebelled against the throne and has already broken through the pass guarding the
approach to the capital. The feckless emperor can do nothing but accept his
minister's advice to abandon the capital and flee to Sichuan.
The rebellion of An Lushan brought to an end the era known as the "High Tang,"
an age of extended peace and prosperity overseen by Emperor Xuanzong, in which
the arts, and particularly poetry, flourished as never before. Falling from the
height of power, Xuangzong becomes a fugitive unable to protect even the life of
the woman he loves, Consort Yang (on the road to exile, the troops escorting the
imperial party refuse to go further until she is put to death). All this is
brought about by the rebellion of An Lushan, a non-Chinese Sogdian who was once
the favorite of the emperor and who became the adopted son of Consort Yang. The
rebellion raged for years, and besides Consort Yang's death, it also brought
with it the sacking of the capital and the abdication of Emperor Xuanzong in
favor of his son. The Tang dynasty was never the same again. One of the reasons
for An Lushan's rebellion was his constant disputes and jockeying for power with
Xuanzong's Prime Minister, Yang Guozhong, who owed his rise to power to his
cousin, Consort Yang. Yang Guozhong was also put to death by the troops
escorting Xuanzong into exile.
The play from which our excerpt comes, The Palace of Eternal Youth, was written
by Hong Sheng (1605-1704) at the close of the seventeenth century. It is
generally regarded by scholars of Kunqu as the greatest and best composed play
written specifically for performance in the Kunqu style. Hong Sheng worked in
consort with a music master to make sure that his lyrics fit the music of the
arias perfectly. The play carries the love story of the emperor and his consort
on beyond her death. In the middle of the play they pledge to be lovers once
again in their next existence, and at the end of the play a shaman manages to
put the two of them back in touch even before Xuanzong himself dies. The play’s
considerable appeal lies in its poetry and the sense of spectacle created
through that poetry.
Hong Sheng did not invent the story that he so ably turned into such a classic
play. But his is the fullest and most artistic of the myriad versions of the
story. Although critical of the failings of the two lovers, his play also
exhibits great sympathy for them, and is one of the strongest affirmations of
love in the Chinese tradition.
Meet the Artists
studied with the Kunju masters of the Shanghai Academy of Performing
Arts for eight years. She plays the lead female role, Du Liniang, in
Lincoln Center’s nineteen hours play The Peony Pavilion directed
by Chen Shi-Zheng, in New York, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Perth, and
Singapore. In 2001, she made her English language debut in Chen Shi-Zheng's
workshop of Ji Junxiang's The Orphan of Zhao, produced by Lincoln
Center Theatre. While still in China, she appeared in theaters
throughout the nation, and received wide acclaim for her performances in
scenes from The Legend of the White Snake and The Peony
Pavilion (Mudan Ting). Celebrated for her compelling stage presence
and beautiful voice, she was awarded the title of National Best Young
Kunqu Actress by the Chinese Minister of Culture. She currently lives in
Wang Taiqi, a graduate of the Shanghai
Academy of Performing Arts, was one of the leading performers of young
male roles for the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe before he moved to the U.S. Mr.
Wang is also well recognized for his versatility in playing other
role-types of the Kunqu dramatic tradition. He has appeared in many
major performances in New York, Washington, D.C., and on the West Coast.
Mr. Wang currently lives in New York and is a resident artist of the
Kunqu Society there.
David Rolston is Associate Professor
of Chinese Language and Literature in the Department of Asian Languages
and Cultures at the University of Michigan. His particular interests
include traditional Chinese drama and fiction. He has numerous
publications in English and Chinese. He is presently working on a book
on the role system of Peking opera which examines the range and
distribution of character types and analyzes them in terms of both the
traditional role-type system and other frames of reference.
Chen Tao is the founder and director of
the Melody of Dragon, and the artistic director and conductor of
the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He is a specialist on the flute,
xiao and xun, and is also a virtuoso performer on other wind instruments
such as the bawu, koudi, chiba and other folk wind instruments. In 1989
he won the first place in the National Folk Instrument competition in
China. During a trip to England he collaborated with the BBC
Philharmonic Orchestra and The Orchestra National de Lyon. The New York
Times called him a "poet in music" and his playing "a miracle of the
oriental flute." While on tour in Germany the maestro Herbert von
Karajan praised him as an artist who "performed with his soul."
Wang Zhensheng, a graduate of the
Jiangsu Drama School, served as a master drummer at the Jiangsu Kunqu
Institute. He is also a distinguished performer of the two-string fiddle
(erhu) and the flute. In 1998 and 1999, he joined the World Tour of
Peter Sellars’ production The Peony Pavilion.
Wang Linsong is a master of several
popular string instruments. He was a resident musician and taught
Sanxian for the Shanghai Yueju Company. Mr. Wang is a member of the
Peony Pavilion ensemble that performed at the 1999 Lincoln Center
Festival and later in Australia, France, and Italy.