Ask any long time Hangzhouvian how often they go to Hefang Street and they will probably tell you: once -- most likely when they first arrived in Hangzhou. Frankly speaking Hefang Street is viewed primarily as a tourist trap filled with over-priced little knick-knacks one can easily buy for cheaper on Taobao. And yet many of us miss out entirely on the historic beauty of Hefang Street architecture at night lit up in the dusky glow of streetlights. Surprisingly, at the intersection of Hefang Street and Zhonghe Road, in a gorgeous old former teashop, you will find what just might be one of the most unforgettable experiences you will ever have in China. A softly glowing sign advertises Yu Le Tang, which at first glance is just an elegant Hangzhou style restaurant. Dark Mahogany wood tables shine beneath soft lighting tucked away in private alcoves. Tea ceremony accoutrements artfully decorate the space, while waiters wearing old style outfits quietly whisk through the restaurant on silent errands. The first-floor restaurant is available without reservation and has prices along the same lines as Grandma’s Kitchen, and the dining experience there is unlikely to be life-changing. What will in fact be memorable is the experience that is available on the second flood of this stone colonial-style building. Here one finds another elegantly styled dining area with two balconies over-looking Zhongshan Road, and a modern black box theater with nightly Kunqu performances. Kunqu is the oldest form of Chinese Opera, and can be considered the Yin to Beijing Opera’s Yang. This utterly feminine and artfully-fluid style of opera should not be confused with the perhaps more widely known Beijing Opera style. Kunqu or Kun Opera was famous during the 16th and 18th centuries, and originated in the Wu Cultural area of Kunshan, in today’s Jiangsu province. This is one of the only Chinese art forms designated by UNESCO in 2001 as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Having a history of more than 600 years, this form of opera - before the mid-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) - was popular mainly in central Jiangsu. That remained the case until Wei Liangfu combined the singing techniques of the northern style with southern melodies. This new form of drama that combined both the northern and southern musical characteristics swept over China to become the most dominant opera style. Not until the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) did Kunqu undergo a decline, due in large part to its gradual removal from accessibility to the broad masses, due to the steady onslaught of excessive stylization and formality. Beijing Opera (long developed) began to gain influence only in 1790s, a result of the fact that it tended to use of local tunes popular with the common people. Kunqu can really be viewed as the Yangtze River of Chinese Opera, with many regional variations such as Beijing Opera splitting off like small tributaries. Beijing Opera retained much of the elegant Kunqu repertoire, and required performers to sing both Kunqu and Beijing Opera. Kunqu is often dubbed the “teacher of various drama forms,” as Kunqu performers traveled around China to spread the art form creating regional variations. This led to the development of Northern and Southern Kunqu. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government made great efforts to protect and develop the art of Kunqu. This was all in large thanks to the Guofeng Kunqu Troupe, from Jiangsu. In 1956, the Guofeng Kunqu Troupe from Jiangsu preformed “Fifteen Strings of Copper Coins” in Beijing. People today often refer to this as “the one performance that saved an entire genre of drama.” Through the great success of that performance, Kunqu Opera survived the severe repression of the Cultural Revolution. Later in 1960 Kunqu Troupes could be found throughout China. The Kunqu repertoire is a treasure trove of poetry, drama, and literature. There are over 400 arias or (highlights from operas) that are still preformed today. Many outstanding playwrights wrote for Kunqu. Notable pieces include “The West Chamber” by Wang Shifu, “The Peony Pavilion” by Tang Xianzu, “The Palace of Eternal Youth” by Hong Sheng, and “The Peach Blossom Fan” by Kong Shangren. Kunqu ushered in second golden age in literature and poetry written specifically for the style. A standard Kunqu performance is very intricate with details paid to the arrangement of acts, verses, names of tunes, roles, stage settings, costumes, props, and performers’ movements; details go so far as to explain the significance of the positions performers take on stage. The roles in Kunqu are divided into seven categories, such as the (male roles), (female roles), jing (painted face), (middle-aged male roles), and (clowns), with further subdivisions within each category. At Yu Le Tang we were treated to an elegant aesthetic performance of “The Peony Pavilion,” created by the great cultural masters Lin Gufang, Lai Shengchuan, Bai Yansheng, Wang Shiyu, and directed by Lin Weilin the head of The Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe. This is not an easy piece to perform. It originally had 55 scenes and could be played for days. Instead, eight excerpted scenes were performed in this intimate theater of only around fifty seats or so. This allowed for a close-up viewing experience.“The Peony Pavilion” was the poetic masterpiece of Tang Xianzu. Today many focus on the love story found within “The Peony Pavilion,” that involving Du Liniang, a cloistered daughter of Nan’an Prefect Du Bao. While taking a forbidden stroll in the family garden with her maid she becomes drowsy and dreams of a tryst with a young scholar, Liu Mengmei. Upon reawakening to find it all just a dream she pines for her dream lover, and dies of lovesickness. Du Liniang comes back as a ghost to visit her young scholar when he chances upon the plum blossom grave. At night while Liu Mengmei, staying in the very garden where Du Liniang first dreamt of her scholarly love, stares at a portrait of the dead Du Liniang, her ghost visits him, urging him to dig-up her body from her grave. It should be mentioned that grave-robbing is a capital offence. After convincing a nun to aid him in this crime, Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei are finally able to marry and proceed to the capital city. Mei Lanfang, known as the greatest master of Beijing Opera, also learned Kunqu, and had a deep understanding of both. He said, “In Beijing Opera, postures are relatively unrehearsed, with no structured choreography, but Kunqu is quite different in this respect. The performer matches specific postures to each aria. Kunqu truly integrates singing and dancing into each individual performance, with equal emphasis on singing and acting. Performing Kunqu is particularly demanding because the actor is, in effect, dancing from the beginning to end.”Mei Lanfang had in fact performed the part of Du Liniang in “The Peony Pavilion” during his lifetime. This romantic opera, with its subtle spectacle, touchingly draws emotion out of the audience through the up-close performances at the Yu Le Tang. The all-black theater has wooden ceilings harkening back to the original theaters in which Kunqu would have been performed. Dark figures are garbed in traditional Kunqu with intricately painted faces in black, red, and green. These figures sit as still as statues to meet the audience as they walk into the theater. Large glass pools hold glittering goldfish that will later simulate rain falling. Modern elements in this elegant theater create a mesmerizing artistic performance at once modern and ancient. This is nothing like the utterly esoteric, shrill, old-fashioned performance of Beijing Opera you may have witnessed before. Here the characters dance in front of your eyes, singing fluid melodies that are anything but shrill. The art director lamented how many young people today are no longer interested in the art form of Kunqu. In this China, is not unique. Worldwide, old art forms fail to lure the interest of youth. Everywhere, mass-produced fast lowbrow culture wins the hearts of young people. A McDonalds sits not a heartbeat away from the Kunqu Theater, a sort of ominous symbol of pop culture that is again threatening Kunqu. Yu Le Tang presents a platform where Kunqu can be performed and enjoyed - not as some ancient artifact of a by gone era - but as something new and exciting that you will remember for a lifetime. The performances are 90 minutes long and are preformed every Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30pm. Admission prices include dinner, which is served on the second floor at 6:30pm. The same meal is served to each guest and involves jewel-like intricately. These modern gastronomic variations of Chinese classic dishes are served modern, long white dishes, while a buffet including delicate desserts is available. You do not have to eat the included meal, but you would be remiss in not experiencing both the meal and the production together. Admission prices (including the meal) runs 580/680/880/1080/1280RMB and reservations can be made via telephone or by going to the restaurant ahead of time. Parking is a nightmare around Hefang Street so do yourself a favor and take a cab.
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