Operatic exchange

Hung Wei-chu, who has watched the rise and fall of kun opera in Taiwan, says the art form may be due for a comeback

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - Page 12

One of the founders of the Taiwan Kunqu Opera Theater (台灣崑曲劇團) believes that fortunes may be turning for kun opera.

Earlier this month, theater cofounder Hung Wei-chu (洪惟助) returned from a trip to Austria, visiting Vienna’s University of Music and the Performing Arts and overseeing a performance of highlights from the kun classic The Peony Pavillion at the Palais Palffy in Vienna. This followed a visit to the school of music at Heidelberg University.

The visit included five performers and two academics from Taiwan, and also representatives of the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts (北京中國戲曲學院) from Beijing.

“There have been many kun performances overseas,” Hung said. “But mostly these have been organized by Chinese communities in various places, particularly the US. In this instance, the invitation was initiated by music academies overseas. With western musical institutions now taking a more active interest in kun, this could see a real change in its fortunes.”

Kun opera is an ancient form of opera, a precursor to the better-known Beijing opera, which suffered a dangerous decline due to its high demands on both performers and audiences, but whose expressive power has won over powerful new advocates in the last two decades.

In a phone interview with Taipei Times soon after his return from this trip, Hung spoke about the current situation of kun opera in Taiwan and China, and his hopes from its international development in the future.

“Kun began its revival in the early 1990s,” Hung said, “And at that time Taiwan was relatively rich, and the situation in China was still chaotic. At that time, some of the best kun opera teachers and performers were eager to visit Taiwan. It was during this period, when Taiwan played host to some of the greatest kun performers of that generation that it developed a discerning audience. Now, top performers are in great demand in China, and salaries are correspondingly high, so it has become more difficult to bring top opera stars over. But the quality of our opera audience is still much appreciated.”

Hung said he had been greatly touched by the intense interest that staff and students in both Austria and Germany had shown during the performances.

“Their enormous respect for the artistry was powerfully conveyed to me,” Hung said, adding that Professor Rudolf Brandl, one of the people behind the invitation to Vienna, had insisted that subtitles not be shown during the performance, as this would prevent the complete focus on the performers.

Hung suggested that the tide was turning for art forms such as kun opera, which might one day have the same kind of appeal as Italian opera. “Our acceptance of Western culture is inevitably conditioned to some degree by economics. The powerful position of Western nations in the economy has helped promote Western art around the world. With China’s rise as an economic force, interest in Asian arts will now grow.”

Hung also suggested that kun opera, with its focus not just on singing, but also on movement, would provide more for a foreign audience to appreciate. “There is so much beauty in kun opera, not just singing,” he said.