The National Guoguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團), founded in 1995, has never been shy about taking on bold and innovative projects. It's most recent release, an adaptation of Eileen Chang's (張愛玲) The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) takes on a classic of modern Chinese literature, and has generated considerable excitement among fan's of Chang's writing. It will premiere to a sold-out audience this weekend at the Metropolitan Hall in Taipei.
Chang has a huge and loyal following, and is regarded by many as one of the greatest modern Chinese novelists. Her short stories especially are held in the highest regard for their subtle depictions of daily life in early 20th century China.
Chang is famous not only for her popular page-turners, but for her skillful use of language, and this, according to Chao Hsue-chun (趙雪君), made adapting The Golden Cangue a uniquely challenging task.
Singing outside of the box
The current project was written to showcase the talents of Beijing opera virtuoso Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), the leading female performer of the National Guoguang Opera Company, who has taken it upon herself to push the boundaries of Beijing opera, helping to create a new type of opera that can appeal more directly to a contemporary audience.
During a talk earlier this month, Wei said the reason that traditional Beijing opera had lost its popularity was the heavy-handed morality that pervades most of the stories. This propensity to lecture the audience about the virtues of filial piety and loyalty to the emperor has alienated modern audiences, she said, and for this reason, new operas such as The Golden Cangue looked inward, exploring the personalities of individuals.
Wei has made a name for herself in playing wicked women, most notably the role of Wang Hsi-feng (王熙鳳) in an opera of that name, which was adapted from the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢). In an interview in 2003 prior to the premiere of Wang Hsi-feng, Wei said that Beijing opera often saw the nation as paramount, with various characters embodying various virtues and vices, with little attention paid to characterizing individuals. In playing one of Chinese literature's most notorious female characters, Wei said she had a chance to explore what an oppressive patriarchal society can do to twist the character of a feisty woman.
With The Golden Cangue, Wei has a chance to interpret the character of Cao Chi-chiao (曹七巧), a woman of a poor family who fights tooth and nail to survive in a rich but decadent family at the turn of the century. Forced to rely on her wiles against an extended family that despises her, she lashes out at those around her with devastating results, but ultimately is a tragic figure caught in circumstances beyond her control.
In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times, Chao said that taking Beijing opera into the realm of character study required her to draw substantially on many conventions of cinema and Western drama. "We found this was essential if we were to create dramatic tension," Chao said, "for what works in the novel doesn't work on stage." Hence the inclusion of flashbacks, dream sequences and the use of a split stage, which are never seen in traditional opera.
"Of course, this may offend some purists, but we have always focused on innovation, and the challenge is to create a new opera format that will allow us to deal with stories such as The Golden Cangue. Characters play mahjong and smoke opium, another novelty, and in one instance the clatter of the mahjong tiles is used to create a rhythm that compliments the music," Chao said.