Kunqu and Peking Opera maestro Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) gave a famous performance at Shanghai's Majestic Theater in 1946. Among the audience of celebrities and officials were the Kuomintang general Bai Chongxi (Pai Chung-hsi) and his family, including 9-year-old son Kenneth Pai Hsien-yong. That night, Mei and artist Yu Zhenfei enacted a scene from The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) called The Interrupted Dream (游园惊梦). It was a memorable night.
"I think it was fate. I did not know what it was. I did not understand it. But it haunted me," says 72-year-old Kenneth Pai, in his hotel room near Peking University. When Pai recalls his first encounter with Kunqu Opera there is excitement in his big, expressive eyes, even though 63 years have passed.
It was the beginning of a love affair with old opera and especially The Peony Pavilion, which turned out to be an "interrupted dream" throughout his life.
Pai's childhood in Shanghai ended in 1949 when the Kuomintang Party was defeated and the family settled in Taiwan, where he studied English literature at Taipei University and became an author.
At university he came across the scripts of The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) and he returned to the story many times as a writer. Inspired by the opera, he wrote a short story titled The Interrupted Dream in 1966. In 1982, he adapted this into a stage play. A year later, he produced two acts of the original opera, The Interrupted Dream, in Taipei.
"But it was not until 1987 when I returned to the mainland for the first time in 38 years to see a Kunqu Opera in Shanghai that my passion for the opera was lit again," Pai says.
As a guest professor, he was invited to Shanghai Fudan University to give classes for three months. On the day before leaving, he got a ticket to see The Palace of Eternal Youth () performed by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company.
"I was overwhelmed," he says, "jumping and clapping even after the rest of the audience had left. In Taiwan I heard that Kunqu Opera was forbidden during the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) and it was dying in the mainland. But that night, I saw a wonderful performance by the leading artists, Cai Zhengren and Hua Wenyi. I saw the art revived, with my own eyes."
After the show, Pai went backstage to meet the performers and they invited him to join the after-show dinner.
Then fate played another trick. When Pai arrived at the restaurant, at No 150 Fenyang Street, he found it was where his family had lived in Shanghai, before they left in 1949.
"How incredible! Life is a drama! All the memories of my boyhood in Shanghai flashed back and I felt it was indeed a 'dream interrupted'," he says, his eyes sparkling.
The actors told him how they had struggled to revive Kunqu Opera. Pai decided: "If they can do this, I must help them. If this art form could survive the 'cultural revolution', it must go on."
After returning to Taiwan, Pai resumed his dream of staging his own large-scale Kunqu Opera production. In 1992 he produced a three-hour show in Taipei, but felt it was "not that good".
"I want to do a more beautiful production, a production that caters for young audiences in the 21st century," says Pai, who says the opera is facing two main problems.