The Opera House Rules

Zhang Yi

Zhang, right, in Palace of Eternal Youth

Kunqu, China's oldest known operatic form, enjoyed its peak of popularity in the 18th century, when the best performers were adored by hundreds of thousands of fans. But by the 1940s there were virtually no dedicated Kunqu theaters left. With its archaic lyrics, sluggish melodies and tedious narratives, the 600-year-old genre — a precursor to the better known Peking opera — was all but dead and understandably so. The Peony Pavilion, one of the most famous Kunqu works, consists of 55 scenes, and a performance can last more than 20 hours. Witnesses to such a grandiose relic...

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