Fri, Oct 24, 2008 - Page 15 News List

With ‘Butterfly,’ the twain meets

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Inthe current lean economic times, the performing arts have been struggling to fill auditoriums, so it is very gratifying to report that the most recent new production by the Tang Mei Yun Taiwanese Opera Company (唐美雲歌仔戲團), Lost Butterfly (蝶谷殘夢), managed to sell all its tickets for four performances a week before the show opened yesterday at the National Theater in Taipei. This is all the more amazing as this production is an experimental cooperation with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (NTSO, 國立台灣交響樂團), which is providing a Western classical music score to the gezai opera (歌仔戲).

Fusions of Chinese opera with Western classical music orchestration are all the rage these days, but they have been something of a hit-and-miss affair, arguably reaching a nadir with the fantastically ambitious The Firmiana Rain (梧桐雨) in October last year. Lost Butterfly is less ambitious, with a clear point of departure within the traditions of gezai opera. The use of a small number of Western orchestral instruments to enrich the sound of Chinese opera is not new, but this is the first time that Tang Mei Yun has cooperated with a full Western orchestra, which performs in addition to the traditional Chinese string and percussion ensemble.

Chinese opera is notable for its relatively small musical ensemble, with clapper boards marking the beat and a string instrument sketching in a melody, which is filled out and articulated by the singer. The presence of the NTSO means that the music — an original score written by composer Chung Yiu-Kwong (鍾耀光), currently the director of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra (台北市立國樂團), and Liu Wen-liang (劉文亮), a specialist in theater music — shares the limelight with the singers, rather than playing a purely auxiliary role. The effect, as when French horns come in to lend their resonance to the expression of deep emotions, or when trombones and kettle drums bring complex and melodramatic revelations to a resounding and climatic denouement, has a cinematic quality that is not unappealing; in a more naturalistic style of performance, it might have been bombastic, but responding to the high emotions and stylization of gezai, the Romanticism of the score works rather well.

PERFORMANCE NOTES

WHAT: Lost Butterfly by the Tang Mei Yun Taiwanese Opera Company

WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2:30pm

WHERE: National Concert Hall, Taipei City

TICKETS: NT$500 to NT$2,000 (sold out)


Within the rich texture of the orchestra score, the traditional ensemble occasionally emerges, sometimes in the strains of traditional instruments such as the erhu (二胡), sketching in the basic melodic line, or the taps of the clapper that give emphasis to the movements of the performers. At a rehearsal on Monday, there were clearly still some hiccups in establishing the rapport between musicians and performers (one of the crucial differences between Chinese and Western opera is that in the former, the musicians watch the performers and take their cue from them, whereas in Western opera, the singers follow the music), but overall, the solid grounding in the conventions of gezai meant that things could not go too far off the rails.

Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), who takes the leading male role, is a powerful presence on stage, but more than that, has also taken an important role in pushing operatic conventions. In one scene, she goes so far as to partly undress one of her leading ladies with the clear intention of taking her to bed. This sort of thing is as far outside the conventions of gezai staging as the orchestra music that is part of Lost Butterfly, and Tang underlined these new developments by saying: “I would not do this with an established opera, but this is an entirely new opera.”

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