Chinese Opera: Peony Pavilion at The Met

i’d planned to come up here to Manhattan (i was in Philly for work) for a couple days now, but it wasn’t until i heard on NPR yesterday about the Peony Pavilion performances at The Met that i had my first concrete plan (other than meeting a friend for brunch tomorrow).

nothing could have prepared me for what i was about to see and hear. as an American-Born Chinese (aka ABC), i heard bits and pieces of Chinese opera and traditional music growing up (not from my parents, though), and even though i’ve been to China twice before, i really had no idea what was in store. i never liked traditional Chinese music and was afraid i’d default to a D: (tilt your head to the right if you’re not familiar with that emoticon) once the music and singing started.

not gonna lie, i came very close at times. i thought long and heard after the performance about how to put it nicely…let’s just say i didn’t think the human voice could produce such pitches.

i’ll try and summarize the story in the photo captions — scroll down past the pictures for a video. note that this version, by composer/conductor Tan Dun, is already an abridged (at 70 minutes) version of the original by Tang Xianzu (written in 1597!), which is made up of 55 scenes performed over several days.


The performance took place in Astor Court, an authentic Chinese courtyard on the second floor of The Met. The room on the far end held musicians behind the screen and some of the action. There was a roaming xiao player and seated guzheng (I think — I’m basing these instrument guesses on looks alone) player by the subtitle screen near the middle of the panorama.


A lady (on the left) and her maid visit a lovely garden.


The lady likes it so much she stays behind and falls asleep in the Peony Pavilion.


While asleep, she dreams of a scholar who does nasty things to her (seriously, the subtitles suggested lyrics fraught with dirty metaphors) with whom she falls in love.


Alas, it was just a dream. But what’s this? He brought her a willow branch in her dream, and she finds it, pining (no pun intended) away for him.


She’s so sad that she dies of heartache and faces the Judge of Hell.


The scholar, who turns out to be real, discovers this painting that the lady did of herself and had hidden in the garden. He falls in love with her and her ghost visits him (see video below).


The Judge of Hell realizes that the two are meant to be together and allows her to be raised from the dead. This is a nun (“Sister Stone”) who helps with the mystical process of bringing her back from the dead. (BTW, this character is hilarious, and I loved the actor, Li Hongliang.)


United, they live happily ever after. THE END.


Zhang Jun (the scholar), Tan Dun (the composer of this new version of the opera), and Zhang Ran (the lady)

last but not least, the video that shows the umm, peculiar sounds of Chinese opera (this is a form known as Kunqu). here, the scholar cannot believe the ghost he’s seeing is the lady in the painting. i’m warning you, it’s a bit umm, piercing.

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if you’re interested, there’s a full-length video put up by the museum of last night’s premiere.

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