Prince Of Kunqu: Jazz Meets Chinese Opera

Jeffrey Zhang out of makeup

hide captionJeffrey Zhang out of makeup.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Jeffrey Zhang in makeup (300)

hide captionDesperate to preserve the kunqu art form, Jeffrey Zhang looks to many places to invigorate the centuries-old style.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Zhang

Imagine a musical cross between a 600-year-old form of Chinese opera and free-form jazz. It sounds like a clash of musical cultures, and in some ways it was.

On stage, with heavy white makeup pancaking his face, his body swathed in embroidered silken robes, Jeffrey Zhang looks every inch the traditional Chinese opera singer. So it comes as a shock when he opens his dressing-room door and reveals himself to be a cool 34-year-old in jeans with spiky hair. But this is the man known as the prince of kunqu, an ancient Chinese form of opera.

"I'm very proud to be a kunqu singer," Zhang says. "It's the mother of Chinese opera. It has 600 years of history, compared to Peking opera, which has just over 200 years of history."

Unlikely Collaborations

Kunqu is an art form governed by strict rules: The rehearsal of most plays takes at least six months, while some can take three years just to rehearse. Despite his age, Zhang has been singing kunqu for 22 years. And he's known as an innovator for his collaborations — with pop stars, Japanese kabuki actors and even ballet dancers — to bring kunqu to a wider audience. Zhang says it's a move driven partly by desperation.

"Let's be honest: It's an art form that's facing extinction," Zhang says. "It's an art form with a very small audience, just like those who buy Prada or Louis Vuitton. I want to bring it to more people, so they get the chance to form their own opinion on it. If they don't hear this art form, they'd never know if they like it or not."

So he decided to combine his operatic arias with free-form jazz piano, as played by the Belgian pianist Jean-Francois Maljean.

"I'm interested in every musical experience, and inspiration can come from there," Zhang says. "And honestly — and we have to be honest — it's also a means to be introduced to a new audience."

Maljean says he had never heard of kunqu when first approached by his record company about the fusion experiment. At first, he says he found the idea a bit weird and didn't know how workable the collaboration would be. Both sides admit that it was not without its tensions.

"What was most difficult is to make it different," Maljean says. "For the Western audience, when we listen to the kunqu for the first time, it seems to be always the same. And the melodies are about the same. That's why we add also some other instruments."

Freeing Strict Musical Forms

For his part, the Chinese opera singer struggled with the very idea of improvisation. Schooled for decades in precise melody and timekeeping, he says he found the very nature of jazz somewhat unsettling.

"Jazz is very free: It's all about improvisation of melodies. But kunqu isn't," Zhang says. "From the moment I open my mouth to sing, it has extremely strict rules. So jazz has freedom, and kunqu doesn't. And combining the two is extremely difficult."

Thus, most of the improvisation is from the pianist, who winds his music around the ancient operatic art form. For Zhang, experimentation only goes so far, setting opera to a jazz backdrop without improvising the notes he sings. But it's worth remembering that the risks he's taking are far larger, including accusations that he's diluting this ancient art form, thus hastening its end. Nonetheless, both musicians say their clash of musical cultures has, in the end, produced something new.

"I wouldn't have been two, three times to China if I wasn't sure it would work. No, I'm sure it's interesting," Maljean says.

"I think our music provides a big space for our inspiration to collide," Zhang says. "It produces a multiplying effect: The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Mine is opera, his is piano, and when we mix together, it produces a new musical dimension."

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