An afternoon of Chinese Kunqu Theater

On Friday, August 4, some Affiliations staff attended an explanatory demonstration of this fascinating art form, a precursor to a real Kunqu performance at the Freer/Sackler Gallery entitled ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth’.

Named an ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by the United Nations, kunqu is classical Chinese musical theater.  We learned that a single performance may be made up of 50-200 scenes, so one performance of kunqu, performed at Lincoln Center in NYC, lasted for 19 hours!  (We were assured that the performance at Freer/Sackler would be much shorter.)  Until well into the 20th century, kunqu was gender segregated – not only the acting troupes, but the audiences as well!

Qian Yi singingIn the picture here, acclaimed young actress Qian Yi demonstrates the precise movements of kunqu.  Each character has a different way of walking which indicates their role – consorts of the emperor glide very slowly, almost imperceptibly, while maids rush around in circles, walking quickly heel to toe.  Scholars have yet another precise walk.  Ladies of the court always keep their hands in a precise configuration, to evoke the beauty of orchids, with fingers spread and articulated. 

As one might expect in a Chinese art form, yin and yang are implicit, even in movements.  Before pointing right, an actress will weave her hand around to the left, and vice versa.  If a character has to bend down to pick a flower, he will first rise up on his toes.

Many different Chinese dialects can be used in a kunqu performance, but it is the clown that most frequently mixes dialects.  Qian Yi also demonstrated how kunqu sounds, and the extensive use of melisma – a word I didn’t know until today!  Melisma is the technique of changing the pitch of a syllable of text while it is being sung.  It is said that melisma achieves a hypnotic trance in the listener…. certainly true in this case, as we could hardly stand to leave once she started singing!