Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest forms of opera still existing in China, with its origins dating back to the Song dynasty (10 to 13th centuries). It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns (changqiang) and has exerted a dominant influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, the Sichuan or Beijing opera. Its characteristic melody (kunqiang) and its dynamic structure, with its cast of a young male lead, a female lead, comic roles, and the role of the old man, have also been borrowed by the other forms of opera. Thus, Peony Pavilion or the Hall of Longevity have become classic repertory pieces. Kunqu combines song, recital, body movement and dance and plays a key role in the training of the actors and singers of Beijing opera. Kunqu is accompanied by string, wind and percussion instruments. There are 2 major types of dance movements and an endless variety of movements to express specific emotions.
Kunqu Opera has suffered somewhat of a decline since the 18th century because it requires a high level of technical knowledge from the audience. Today, it is facing competition from mass culture and a lack of interest amongst the young. Of the 400 arias regularly sung in opera performances in the mid-twentieth century, only a few dozen continue to be performed. The Opera Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts maintains a rich collection of written and audiovisual resources and conducts research into a wide range of areas.The State funds 7 permanent theatres which specialize in Kunqu and encompass a total of 500 practitioners. Two of these theatres also offer classes. The action plan aims to publish a complete edition of the texts of Kunqu operas since the Ming era, to produce an archive of the expertise of elderly actors through video recordings and to revive those plays which have not been performed for a considerable time. Furthermore, the actors training programme needs to be strengthened to allow an intake of around 10 students per year and to be widened to incorporate training for technical experts and researchers and training workshops for directors. A promotional programme will be initiated through the media in parallel with the organisation of a festival of Kunqu opera to be held every 2 years. The first festival was organised at Suzhou in 2000.
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