Prince Of Kunqu: Jazz Meets Chinese Opera Jeffrey Zhang is known for mixing the traditional Chinese opera form with pop music and kabuki dancers. But now he's begun to incorporate free-form jazz piano in a culture clash that's turning heads and winning over new fans.
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Prince Of Kunqu: Jazz Meets Chinese Opera

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Prince Of Kunqu: Jazz Meets Chinese Opera

Prince Of Kunqu: Jazz Meets Chinese Opera

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Imagine a musical collaboration between a 600-year-old form of Chinese opera and free-form jazz. If it sounds like a clash of musical cultures, well, in some ways it is. NPR's Louisa Lim has the second of two reports on how young Chinese musicians innovate with ancient art forms.

(Soundbite of Chinese opera)

LOUISA LIM: Onstage 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 as 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.

Mr. JEFFREY ZHANG (Chinese Kunqu Singer): (Through Translator) I'm very proud to be a kunqu singer. 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.

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

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) Let's be honest, it's an art form that's facing extinction. I want to bring it to more people so that 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'd like it or not.

LIM: And so he decided to combine his operatic arias with free-form jazz piano, as played by the Belgian pianist Jean-Francois Maljean. He explains his motivation for this unusual collaboration.

Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS MALJEAN (Pianist): First, because I'm interested in every new musical experience. And inspiration can come from there, you know. But honestly - and we have to be honest - it's also a means to be introduced to a new audience.

(Soundbite of Chinese opera)

LIM: Maljean had never actually 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 it was not without its tensions.

Mr. MALJEAN: What was the most difficult is to make it different. When you're a Western audience and we listen to the kunqu for the first time, it seems to be always the same. And the melodies are about the same. So that's why we added some other instruments.

(Soundbite of collaboration between Chinese opera and free-form jazz)

LIM: For his part, the Chinese opera singer struggled with the very idea of improvisation. Schooled for decades in precise melody and timekeeping, the very nature of jazz was to prove somewhat unsettling.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) Jazz is very free. It's all about improvisation of melodies. But kunqu isn't. 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.

LIM: So most of the improvisation is from the pianist, winding his music around the ancient operatic art form. For Jeffrey Zhang, experimentation only goes so far, setting opera to a jazz backdrop without yet 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 are quietly confident their clash of musical cultures has, in the end, produced something new.

Mr. MALJEAN: I wouldn't have been two, three times to China if I wasn't that sure it can work. Well, I'm sure it's interesting.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) I think our music provides a big space for our inspiration to collide. 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.

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

SHAPIRO: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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