Given Verdi’s fascination with the exotic, it is more than probable that the prospect of seeing Rigoletto reworked as a Beijing opera would have delighted the composer. After three years in the making, The Jester (弄臣), a new-style Beijing opera described as “Rigoletto recomposed,” takes to the stage tonight for its world premiere, staring Li Baochun (李寶春) in the title role.
This big, new opera is a production by the Koo Foundation (辜公亮文教基金會) and the brainchild of Vivien Ku (辜懷群), the foundation’s executive director. It is a bad time to be presenting an innovative opera production, following as it does on the heels of a number of high-profile flops that have, Ku admitted, scared off many normally adventurous theatergoers from anything that smacks of tampering with tradition. After two decades of producing highly regarded operas, both original and traditional, Ku hopes the reputation of the foundation’s productions will maintain audience loyalty. “I’m sure people will send out scouts to report back from the first night,” she said.
Keeping Beijing opera fresh while not offending traditionalists is Ku’s battle, and she has a very clear idea of just how far she can innovate. “Of two major productions each year, one of them is absolutely traditional,” she said. The Jester, while it remains unequivocally within the realm of Beijing opera, has made bold changes in less ostentatious ways.
First and foremost is the adaptation, or rather appropriation, of one of Western opera’s most recognized masterpieces. Ku said she had long considered writing a Beijing opera drawn from the Western operatic canon. She loves opera of all sorts and had given considerable thought to the problem of such a West-to-East transition. “The number of choices was very limited,” she said. “In regard to making a Chinese opera from a Western one, I realized that the most important thing was to pick a good story. If there was lots of singing, but not much plot, then the results would be terrible ... you’d simply have to rewrite it.”
What: The Jester
When: Today and tomorrow at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2:30pm
Where: Novel Hall (新舞台), 3-1 Songshou Rd, Taipei City (台北市松壽路3-1號)
Tickets: NT$500 to NT$2,000, available through ERA ticketing
With the Verdi opera deriving from the play Le Roi S’Amuse, by Victor Hugo, a writer whose material has met with formidable success in transformation into musical genres, Ku felt the piece was something she could work with.
“There is enough of a story in Rigoletto to hold the opera together [in dramatic terms]. All that is changed is the performance style ... A really good story can be a moving experience regardless of how it is told,” she said.
In appearance, The Jester looks very different from a traditional Beijing opera with its sparse stage (which conventionally has just a table and two chairs) and hugely elaborate costumes. The set for The Jester is as elaborate as any you might see in a Western opera, but the costumes have been pared down and simplified, giving the actors more room to express individuality. “Beijing opera emphasizes ‘character types,’ but not the individual,” Ku said. Although Li will sing in the style of the “old man” role at which he excels, the character he presents, shifting from the sly jester at court and the upright and loving father at home, defies established character types.
Despite these changes, Ku sees The Jester as lying within the conventions of Beijing opera. “The stage, the costumes, acrobatics, acting, speaking and singing — these are the elements you have to work with,” she said. “We have changed the first two, but for the rest, the basics of traditional Beijing opera are all there and unchanged.” Other productions, either bolder or more foolhardy, have gone further, in some cases with disastrous results. In other cases, such as Contemporary Legend Theater’s (當代傳奇劇場) Medea (樓蘭女), which opens next week at the National Theater, they have evolved into something completely new and can no longer be described as Beijing opera.