Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 19 News List

An opera with style and witty repartee

STAFF WRITER

Wang Shi-fong and Grandma Jia are a perfect duet in Wang Shi Fong. Photo courtesy of National Kuo Kuang Chinese Opera Company

The Kuo Kuang Chinese Opera Company is a bastion of Taiwan's embattled Beijing opera scene and with its most recent work, Wang Shi Fong: The Most Scheming Woman in Dreams of the Red Chamber (王熙鳳大鬧寧國府), which opened last night at the Novel Hall, it is proving that the battle for younger audiences can still be won, having sold out for its Sunday performance -- and with strong sales for its other shows.

Wang Shi Fong was originally scheduled to hit the boards earlier this year, but was one of many victims of the SARS epidemic. The wait has done it no harm, and the presence of Beijing opera star Wei Haimin (魏海敏) in the title role has brought out opera buffs for this very unconventional opera.

The Dream of the Red Chamber, from which the story is taken, is an undisputed classic of Chinese literature and has provided material for presentation in many other media, from comic books to opera.

The character Wang Shi-fong makes for brilliant drama and the opera has many aspects akin to a social drama, making it unusually easy to watch, especially for those unaccustomed to the ponderous tragedy that dominates Beijing opera plots. Caught inside the machinations of a huge extended family, Wang fights for survival using any tools available -- most notably a sharp tongue, a wily, not to say manipulative nature, and the ability to practice the art of flattery with a flagrance and shamelessness that stuns those around her.

Wang is one of the great characters of Chinese literature, a tough woman among dissolute and weak-willed men who nevertheless control the levers of power. In a world of petty cruelty and deceit, she is unafraid to be truly evil, blighting the lives of her enemies with a masculine determination that awes the many men in her life. She is Chinese literature's super bitch, drawn by Cao Hsue-chin (曹雪芹), the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, with such incredible detail and shading that one is never allowed to forget beneath all the guile and wickedness, there is a woman fighting for her life, keeping her head above water while weaker sisters fall victim to a male dominated world.

Wei Haiming does a splendid job of interpreting Wang, walking a fine line between the formalized conventions of Beijing opera and more informal character acting. The blend is appealing and makes Wang Shi Fong a great introduction to Chinese opera. Artistic director Wang An-hsin (王安祈) said that this was an opera that most people would be able to understand without the aid of subtitles, and much of the dialogue is spoken in a manner much closer to the vernacular than in more traditional performances.

Wang Shi Fong will be at the Novell Hall today and tomorrow at 7:30pm, with a 2:30pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets are NT$300 to NT$1,200 and are available from ERA ticketing and from the venue.

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