The Chien Kuo Foundation For Arts And Culture and the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater are joining forces for their October production of Nanke Dream. The production is a collaborative cross-strait effort, with Cai Zhengren and Zhang Jiqing, two renowned kun opera masters from China, offering their operatic expertise, Taishin Arts Award-winner Wang Chia-ming in the director’s chair, a dream team of set and costume designers, including Huang I-ju, Lai Hsuan-wu and Wang Tien-hung, and a cast of young stars from Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater — Shi Xiaming, Shan Wen, Zhao Yutao and Xu Sijia — filling the lead roles. The opera is set to be a spectacular, dream-like performance.
Wang Chia-ming, a director who has earned the epithet “theater’s naughty child,” will be exploring entirely new territory with Nanke Dream. He says that even though the opera is 400 years old, it is still relevant to people today and quite alluring.
Nanke Dream, commonly translated as A Dream Under the Southern Bough, is one of the four plays collectively known as “Four Deams“ written by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu during the late Ming Dynasty. Tang adapted the work from a well-known fantastical short story by Tang Dynasty writer Li Gongzuo called The Governor of Nanke. The story portrays life in the dream state and the process of falling deeply in love with someone and then losing them, probing deep into the threshold of human emotion. Wang says he will place individual desires within the social power constructs of nation and family, using the dream state to question the perceptual distinction between reality and fantasy, and in the end the audience hopefully comes to the realization that the material world is emptiness.
Kun opera possesses its own aesthetic formula, and Wang, in interpreting the work, returns to the basic performance requirements of the art form, avoiding the use of any contemporary methods that would negatively affect the opera’s own traditional mixture of musical, vocal and recitative techniques and styles. Most of the rehearsal time is being spent ensuring that all of the physical movements, the positioning of people when walking, facial expressions, how the body appears and props are all suitable for what Nanke Dream is supposed to represent. By expressing in meticulous detail the flow of emotions and each character’s desires and thoughts, the production should be able to attain an extravagant sense of simplicity and allow contemporary audiences to connect with antiquity.
The plot of the opera takes place during the Tang Dynasty and involves a discharged army officer named Chun Yufen, who gets drunk, falls asleep and dreams that he has entered an ant kingdom where he marries a princess and becomes a palace attendant before being sent off to be prefecture chief of Nanke County. After an illustrious career spanning 20 years and a beautiful marriage, his wife suddenly dies from an illness. Chun spends his days in utter debauchery and in the end is sent back to the real world. When he wakes up, Chun sees that he was merely stuck inside an ant kingdom in a pagoda tree. Suddenly a thunderstorm washes away the entire ant hill. Feeling a deep sense of gratitude toward the ant kingdom, Chun asks a Buddhist priest to release the suffering souls of the ant kingdom. In the end, Chun attains nirvana and becomes a Buddha.