Musical and dramatic structure of Kunqu
In a Kunqu performance, three media work simultaneously and in harmony to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect: music, words, and dance. An accomplished Kunqu performer must master the special styles of singing and dance movement to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect.
There are two, easily distinguished, styles of text and music. Arias, which are sung and accompanied by the orchestra, are elaborate poems of high literary quality. Prose passages (monologues and dialogues) are neither sung nor spoken but chanted in a stylized fashion comparable to the recitative of Western opera. Sometimes there is a combination of the two styles: one of the characters sings while another one chants at the same time.
Kunqu music is based on the "qupai " principle. The poetic passages of the play are written to fit an a sequence of tunes, known as qu-pai, chosen from an existing repertory. The libretto must conform to the pattern of the particular "qu-pai" in regard to the number of lines, the number of syllables per line, tonal sequence and rhyme.
Since Chinese is a tonal language, there is a delicate relation between words and tunes. Every word has a "melody", and the musical air must be superimposed on the word melody, without interfering with it. Only after the main and subordinate qu-pai were selected did the author begin to compose the libretto to match the musical structure.
The language of Kunqu is not the dialect of Kunshan or Suzhou, nor is it standard Mandarin. It is an artificial stage language, a modified Mandarin with some features of the local dialect. Since the language in which Kunqu plays are written has eight tones.
In addition to music and words, dance movements and highly stylized gestures form an integral part of the performance. As in classical ballet, the whole body is engaged, but the movement is much more grounded. The movements convey an intricate language of gestures and body movements that is similar but much more complex and extensive than the mime in classical ballet.
Although the meaning of some movements is immediately understood even by the uninitiated, other movements are stylized and conventional, involving not only the body but also the costume (especially the sleeves) and props held in the hand, such as a fan.