Last week, The Huntington hosted a special event as part of an ongoing series of programming related to its Chinese Garden. “Chinese Kun Opera: In Conversation with Peter Sellars and Hua Wenyi”, was an incredible opportunity for anyone interested in the continuing evolution of cultural and artistic discourse in Los Angeles. About 200 people convened in Friends’ Hall to hear Sellars, the visionary opera, theater, and music festival director, talk with Hua, a renowned master of kunqu (also known as kun opera), about the significance of what Sellars called “one of the most sophisticated art forms in the world.”
The Huntington’s n, or Garden of Flowing Fragrance, provided a thematic foundation and framework for the whole evening’s discussion. The garden’s curator, June Li, observed in her introductory remarks that “it makes for the perfect context to understand this particular art form [of kunqu] that flourished in the 16th century and was performed in many beautiful garden estates in China.” She described the garden as a collaboration between East and West as well as an intersection between the past and what's to come, an idea that Sellars elaborated on when he said, “The garden is not just an object, it’s actually a living force. … It’s not a monument. It’s alive, it’s changing, it’s blooming. It is about the future.”
Sellars went on to give a brief overview of kun opera, which was being performed in the gardens of scholar-gentry in China’s Suzhou province at the same time as Shakespeare’s work was appearing on stage in England. The program sheet for the evening described kun as “the oldest extant opera tradition in China … recognized for the literary value of its dramatic texts, the elegance of its music, and for the finely articulated character portrayals of its actors."
Hua and Sellars first met in 1990, after which they collaborated on a re-working of the 16th-century Chinese play, Peony Pavilion. The play, written during the Ming Dynasty by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, has traditionally been performed as a kun opera. On Tuesday night, Sellars and Hua shared anecdotes of their experience bringing this well-known classical work to life in the 20th century. Sellars also gave a summary of several key scenes in the play, explaining them not only within the context of the story, but also in terms of how they influenced and reflected important themes in Chinese culture.
Toward the end of the night, Hua performed selections from the play, accompanied by flautist Henry Chang and Qiaoer Zheng, a student in the Asian Theater Program at the University of Hawaii. Hua's comments were translated by Susan Pertel Jain, Executive Director of the UCLA Confucius Institute, who has worked closely with both Sellars and Hua in the past.
The full audio recording of the evening is available for download and is well worth a listen, not least for Peter Sellars’ many beautifully expressed observations about how art and culture intersect with our lives. To leave you with just one thought-provoking example, the next time you’re wandering through the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at The Huntington, consider this insight into the landscape in which you find yourself: “No line is just a straight line, every line is interrupted. Everything is about the interrupted dream, the vista that suddenly surprises you by opening into the vista you weren’t expecting.”