It was only last month that the National Theater hosted a massive operatic retelling of the love story between the Tang Dynasty Xuanzong emperor (712-756) and his concubine, Lady Yang, in Firmiana Rain. It was an effort to bring the tale of eternal love and betrayal into the 21st century. This weekend, Rainbow Skirt and Feather Robe (霓裳羽衣), a very different rendition of the story, will take the stage at the Novel Hall (新舞台). The story is set in the historical context of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with ancient music, language and costumes.
The Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble (心心南管樂坊) specializes in nanguan (南管) music, a genre that can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty and continues to be performed in China's Fujian Province and countries in southeast Asia like Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines that have old Fujianese immigrant populations. In recent years, nanguan has experienced something of a resurgence in Taiwan, due in no small measure to the work of the Han Tang Yuefu Ensemble (漢唐樂府), which combines nanguan music with the dramatic action of liyuan opera (梨園戲), modern staging and sumptuous costumes to create a spectacle that has brought new audiences to the ancient art.
In an interview with the Taipei Times, Wang Xinxin (王心心), who heads up the Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble, said Rainbow Shirt and Feather Robe takes Han Tang Yuefu's achievements one step further, giving the performance a dramatic structure and greater emotional range.
"We explore ways of bringing out the characters' emotions through the music," Wang said. "Traditionally, the emphasis of nanguan was simply on musicality, and the songs would be sung without specific reference to character."
What: Rainbow Skirt and Feather Robe by the Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble
When: Tonight 7:30
Where: Novel Hall (新舞台)
Tickets: NT$400 to NT$1,800 through ERA or at the venue
What: Mulien Saves His Mother(Part One and Two on separate days)
by the Quanzhou Dacheng Opera Troupe
When: Tomorrow and Sunday 7:30pm
Where: Novel Hall (新舞台)
Tickets: NT$400 to NT$1,500 through ERA or at the venue
For the libretto, Wang has drawn directly on the poetry of Hong Sheng (洪昇), who wrote one of the great operatic versions of the love story during the Qing Dynasty titled The Hall of Longevity (長生殿). This takes a small section of the opera - four scenes out of a total of 50 - that focus on the musical collaboration between the emperor and Lady Yang in recreating a piece of music that had been inspired by a dream. This collaboration established the foundation of understanding and admiration that was the basis of their love.
Following Rainbow Skirt and Feather Robe, Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble will present a two-day performance of Mulien Saves His Mother (目蓮救母) by the Quanzhou Dacheng Opera Troupe (泉州打城戲劇團). This story, one of the most venerable pieces in the current Chinese operatic canon, traces its roots to religious plays performed by Buddhist monks and Daoist priests, and, as the title suggests, is heavily moralistic and promotes filial piety and self-sacrifice.
"It is not often performed these days, since it's largely associated with magnificent funeral services of ancient times," said Chia Hsin-yuan (賈馨園), manager of the Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble. "Traditionally, the performance would run for seven days."
In this weekend's performance, which takes the form of dacheng opera (打城戲), the seven days have been condensed into two. "I decided to bring the group over because I was so moved to see that such traditional performances were still practiced," Jia said, speaking of a recent visit to Quanzhou.
Dacheng opera is a mix of storytelling, martial arts, operatic poses and circus acts performed by itinerant religious groups telling moral tales.