Shen Shihua's fascination with The Peony Pavilion began in 1954, when she joined Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe.
Just 13 years old then, she couldn't fully understand the secret romance between the two leading characters, Du Liniang-a young daughter of a high official-and Liu Mengmei-a young scholar. However, she was touched by the love story and the beautiful style of Kunqu Opera.
Shen performed as Du Liliang for the first time in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, in 1955. The performance enabled Shen not only to become a budding star in her troupe but also gave her the reputation as one of the three best Kunqu Opera actresses at the time in southern China, along with Zhang Jiqing from Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Troupe and Hua Wenyi from Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe.
"I had performed the role of Du Liniang so many times that sometimes I felt that she was just another me," recalls Shen, 74.
However, in 1984, after performing a scene from The Peony Pavilion called "The Interrupted Dream", Shen moved to Beijing with her husband and started teaching Kunqu Opera at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.
During the past 30 years, Shen became the first female professor of Kunqu Opera in China and she has trained a number of students. More than 30 of them have won the Plum Blossom Prize, China's top award for dramatic performances. Despite those achievements, she still had a personal ambition: She hoped to perform Du Liniang again.
Next month, her dream will come true. She will return to the stage and play the role in the latest version of the 600-year-old opera, which was written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). Eighteen established Kunqu Opera masters, including Hua Wenyi, Shi Xiaomei and Wang Fengmei, will perform in the show.
"For a very long time, I lamented leaving the stage and felt frustrated that the audiences had forgotten me. I thought my dream with The Peony Pavilion was interrupted forever," says Shen, with excitement in her eyes even though 30 years have passed since she last took up the role.
Taipei native Joseph Lin, producer of the show, has been working with Peking Opera troupes and Kunqu Opera troupes on the Chinese mainland for years. He says all of the 18 Kunqu Opera masters are national treasures. Most of them are over 70 years old and have left the stage for years, like Shen.
Liu Yilong, 75, from Shanghai Kunqu Opera Theater, is known for a minor role in The Peony Pavilion-that of Shi Dao Gu, a middle-aged Daoist abbess who helps Liu Mengmei dig up the grave of Du Liniang before Du is resurrected.
"It's my favourite role and I have performed it three times in my life. Despite the age difference, the woman loves Liu but she is willing to sacrifice her love to help him. Some have described The Peony Pavilion as the Romeo and Juliet of the East. I think The Peony Pavilion is unique and incomparable," says Liu.
Hou Shaokui, who came from Northern Kunqu Opera Theater, will perform the role of the judge of hell in the show. The 74-year-old actor is known for his wusheng roles (male roles with martial arts skills), although he has never performed the role before.
"It's very challenging since I have to memorize all the lyrics, tunes and movements within a short time. I felt like learning a whole new show again," he says. "This is a rare opportunity to have all the great Kunqu Opera actors perform in one show. It's a new peak in my career."
Yang Fengyi, the director of Northern Kunqu Opera Theater, came up with the idea of presenting such a special version of The Peony Pavilion.
As the opening show of the 2014 National Kunqu Heritage Report Performance, which will run from Dec 13 to 24, this version of The Peony Pavilion will be staged in Beijing on Dec 13 and 14.
During the 2014 National Kunqu Heritage Report Performance, The Peony Pavilion will be performed in eight different versions by seven Kunqu Opera troupes.
"When I was a little girl, I admired their Kunqu Opera singing skills and performances. I hope this version will work as a good example for the young Chinese Kunqu Opera actors," says Yang, 52."
The Peony Pavilion has been adapted into different art forms, such as ballet and contemporary dance. But for me, only Kunqu Opera could tell the authentic story and emotions thoroughly. To achieve the creativity of ancient art forms, we have to learn from the past, from the old-generation artists."
If you go
7:30 pm, Dec 13 and 14. Tianqiao Theater, 30 Beiwei Lu (Road), Xicheng district, Beijing. 4006-228-228.