This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the kunqu opera The Peony Pavilionreimagined for the Arts Fest. Back in 2008, I watched awaking, Keng Sen’s collaboration with composer Qu Xiao Song, bringing together music from the opera with Elizabethan melodies from Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet and Othello. (Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu, composer of The Peony Pavilion, were in fact contemporaries.)
But as it turns out, The Peony Pavilion doesn’t take up a huge part of this. Yes, our diva, Qian Yi, is famous for her portrayal of Du Liniang in an epic 20-hour production of said opera, and the prologue is taken directly from the story: how a woman wakes from a dream of her beloved, and resolves to go in search of him…
Yet she’s not singing Du Liniang’s lines in the show. She’s singing the words of the male protagonist, Liu Mengmei. Which is perhaps why there was such unabashed sensuality in the opening, as she comes on, bare-headed and bare-armed, with only a shawl to suggest the flourishes of her water sleeves, while the orchestral music skirls gently, heterophonously, about her voice.
Jennifer Wen Ma later told me that only 10% of the libretto is taken from The Peony Pavilion. The rest is stolen from Tang Xianzu’s other plays, poems from Tang poets and The Book of Songs, and workshopped by herself, composer Huang Ruo and Qian Yi.
So this show is rooted in kunqu, but its trunk and branches are in the 21stcentury, where the Western tradition is at least as present as Chinese heritage.
Hence the garden. This is specifically a reinvention of the story of Eve in Eden, though it is she who creates herself through waking and wanting, she who enters and explores the garden during her quest.
She who creates it by encountering it. A black tree springs out of the floorboards through a complex webbing of rope and string, suspended from the ceiling. Black shrubs appear behind her, a multimedia sky of storms and skies and fireflies illuminates the backdrop, and eventually a massive white fan that unfolds from the floor, a blossom where she dreams again…
There are gods here, but they’re not creator gods: they’re just celestial voices, clad in grey armour and headdresses like chessmen, a chorus of angels and/or phantasms, serving as invisible guides and guardians on the woman’s journey.
They’re played by four men: bass-baritone Ao Li, countertenor John Holiday, baritone Joo Won Kang and tenor Yi Li, who’re also meant to represent various foursomes in Chinese folk belief: the four directions, earth/wind/air/fire, and also firefly, wolf, light and lover, apparently.
Yi Li’s the lover: he shares a duet with Qian Yi in the garden—she even lies down and gestures to him in a tiny moment suggesting a roll in the hay. (No more than that, though. We don’t want MDA to have conniptions.) But then he bids farewell, and she wails after him as he returns to the aether. He’s less a character than an ideal.
Photo by Stephanie Berger
Really, it’s John Holiday whose voice stands out: it’s got that unearthly numinousness that they say the Vatican’s castrati always had, rising like a shot of moonlight above the deep bass of the other men. It’s also a site where the meeting and melding of cultures is laid bare: his is a clearly un-Chinese face singing in Mandarin (though mind you, Joo Won Kang is Korean), part of a marginal yet clearly Western tradition that nonetheless finds congruence with the lost tradition of men playing women’s roles in kunqu.
What tradition does his song come from, if any? John didn’t know. I asked him over the buffet, and he said Huang Ruo wrote the piece specifically for him. But I got nervous about approaching Huang Ruo, so I let the question go.
The idea of cultures meeting is only incidental to this piece, anyway: it’s much more about the concept of a universal odyssey, with the woman progressing from optimism and joy at discovery to disillusionment in her ideal, losing herself in dreams as she sleeps in the flower, horrified as the dream turns into a nightmare, breaking forth from the blossom…
Hold on, is this about Communism?
What nonsense! (Better not get Jennifer Ma in trouble with her government.)
Obviously, it’s about art instead. After all, the show closes with Qian Yi raimented in sequins and a headdress like a disco inferno Guanyin, rising on a plinth, singing of her enlightenment, like the first drops of ink on paper.
So this is the storm that comes before a poem is written. And the ink is at the hem of her dress, too, as if she’s the hairs of a calligraphy brush.
There’s something deeply Buddhist about this whole quest: a search for internal peace, a shedding of desires. And though it’s inspired by the story of Eve in Eden (no serpent, but there is a wolf that threatens her at one point), it reminds me more of the images of Mary Magdalene as a penitent in the wilderness, forsaking her beauty to the extent that she becomes covered with hair.
The Penitent Mary Magdalene, by El Greco, 1576-77
Come to think of it, spirituality is something that Jennifer Wen Ma’s explored here before, back in the Singapore Biennale 2006, when she presented Alms, a video work shown concurrently in the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, St Joseph’s Church and Sultan Mosque.
But if we’re speaking of intellectual movements, it’s important also not to overlook the feminism of this project. This woman is not reduced to her reproductive system—the moment of sexuality does not lead to childbirth but to a psychic birth, as it were. She is not punished for her desires, not in the long run anyway: rather, her heartbreak leads to enlightenment.
The T'ang Quartet during curtain call
I suppose I should say something about the Singaporean element in this show: the involvement of the T’ang Quartet and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. But though I appreciate the fact that our artists are being cultivated and employed, it’s hard to say much when they weren’t part of the creative process that brought Paradise Interrupted into its present form. (Remember, it premiered in Spoleto and had a show in New York before this.)
And as for the LaSalle students who were invited on as Supernumeraries… Aiyoh, if they’re stagehands, just say stagehands lor. What’s worse, they evidently did not get proper direction and/or rehearsals: they hauled in the laser-cut shrubbery with evident difficulty, like comic rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s not their fault at all—they needed proper direction and/or rehearsals to know how to move. But it was hella distracting from the utter grace that characterizes the rest of the production. Hopefully this was corrected after opening night.
In fact, the real Singapore element that made the show interesting for me was the audience. There was a real mix of folks on opening night: not just culture vultures but also old folks bussed in from community centres, students drawn in by the G-rating.
Consequently, every now and then there’d be a buzz of a cellphone, a bit of muttering from the back and a shush. One friend told me of being in the front row, along with a line of snoozing aunties.
And though I was annoyed at first, in retrospect, I’m not mad at this. High art shouldn’t be exclusive to an exclusive elite. If you hear someone misbehaving in a theatre, it often means that person is being introduced to that variety of theatre for the first time.
And don’t all of us deserve beautiful dreams, and journeys into paradise?
Don’t all of us deserve enlightenment?