When Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble (漢唐樂府) first staged The Feast of Han Xizai (韓熙載夜晏圖) to great acclaim back in 2002 (reviewed in Taipei Times, April 19), the ensemble followed the centuries-old tradition of using male musicians.
The musicians rehearsing in a subterranean space on Nanjing East Road on Tuesday, however, are predominately female - a major change made by the ensemble's founder Chen Mei-o (陳美娥) and one that harks back to the period on which the opera is based.
The painting, of the same name, upon which Chen drew inspiration for The Feast of Han Xizai, depicts the lifestyle of the upper-class, with concubines performing for officials reclining on extravagant sofas.
"After the Tang Dynasty, women were less commonly used in nanguan (南管) performances," Chen said. She added that women were often seen as more suited to learning the refined gestures and intricate music that are hallmarks of the nanguan style.
Knowledge of both music and movement are necessary to pulling off a nanguan performance. "The music and dance are intimately related," said 24-year old Angie Huang (黃淨偉). "If you don't understand the music you can't do the dance." The percussionist has studied and worked as a nanguan performer for over 10 years and says she is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Chen.
According to Chen, following the demise of the Tang Dynasty, nanguan moved outside the palace walls and the upper class circles and gradually became an art form for commoners. Over the next century male actors replaced women as the performers due to the many dangers faced by traveling theater troupes.
For Chen, the painting not only serves as a departure to investigate people but also the period it depicts.
What: The Feast of Han Xizai (韓熙載夜晏圖)
Where: The National Theater, Taipei
When: Today and tomorrow at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:30pm
Tickets: NT$400 to NT$2,500 and are available
Han Xizai was a respected government official in the latter part of the Tang Dynasty and tutor to the emperor. He grew disenchanted with court intrigue and gave himself over to a life of pleasure, gaining a reputation for holding wild and lavish parties - events the emperor didn't attend because he was forbidden to leave the palace.
Learning of Han Xizai's activities, the emperor sent an artist to paint one of these great parties. Upon seeing the painting, the emperor became jealous of Han Xizai's lifestyle and stripped him of his titles.
Though the opera's players have changed to reflect greater historical verisimilitude to the painting's era, the sumptuous costumes and modern approach to stage design remain intact. Chen has retained Tim Yip (葉錦添), the Oscar-winning designer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), for costume and stage design.