Kunqu Opera, which originated in Jiangsu Province, is 600 years old and is considered the "mother of Chinese operas." In 2001 UNESCO placed it on the list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
It is known for gentle, clear vocals, beautiful and refined tunes and a mix of dance-like steps and acrobatic performance, though nothing jarring like Peking Opera.
The play is adapted from the 55-scene love story by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With beautiful verses and a love that transcends feudal bounds, the play has captured the hearts of audiences over the centuries. Perhaps it can do so again, in a pared-down version.
The romance centers on the romance between 16-year-old Du Liniang and scholar Liu Mengmei. Du goes to Peony Pavilion where she falls asleep. There she encounters Liu in her dreams and they conduct an affair. On waking, she falls ill from love sickness and dies from sorrow.
Then the real Liu visits her home and falls in love with Du's portrait. He too is sick with love, but he lives.
The god of the dead takes pity on the lovers and returns Du to life. The lovers elope and get married. Du's father is disbelieving. A war breaks out, the family is separated. Her father throws Liu into prison. It gets complicated, but Liu is freed since he came in first in the imperial examinations. It turns out well.
Director Tian Mansha says this is a "young version," and though it doesn't have luxurious costumes and magnificent scenes, it is designed to suit the tastes and perspective of modern-day viewers.
"People will see the original and honest performance from talented 'young faces' who are apprentices of Kunqu Opera masters such as Yue Meiti and Zhang Xunpeng," says Tian.
Some performers are from Shanghai Youth Kunqu Opera House, while others are still studying at the Opera School of Shanghai Theater Academy.
Most of them understand their responsibility to promote Kunqu Opera among today's generation.
"I have studied Kunqu Opera for eight years," says Weng Jiahui, 23. "Sometimes I can read the hearts of people at my age. Performing on stage is only part of our job. We also need to interact with the young audience."
The cast will organize campus workshops about Kunqu Opera art with university students. They will head for Hong Kong in November for culture and art exchanges.