There is nothing unusual about another new Beijing opera by the Guoguang Opera Company (國光劇團), a mainstay of Taiwan’s opera scene. What makes Three Kingdoms’ Intriguing Stratagems (三國計中計) unusual is the fact that it has been created specifically to appeal to children. This is Guoguang’s fourth original production targeted at children, and ticket sales (it performed to sold-out crowds over the weekend) seem to suggest that they have been successful at appealing to their target audience.
The basis of Three Kingdoms’ Intriguing Stratagems is the well-known Beijing Opera Gathering of Heroes (群英會), which focuses on the ploys and intrigues that take place in the prelude to the Battle of Red Cliffs (赤壁之戰), a major turning point in Chinese history and one which, if the storytellers are to be believed, was remarkable for the concentration of great military leaders present. The highly convoluted plot, huge cast of characters and intricate web of loyalties and rivalries might seem to make this unpromising material for young children.
According to director Wang Kuan-chiang (王冠強), the current show made use of a new device to give its young audience a greater sense of involvement in the action. Ni Chung-ji (倪中基) is a primary school kid who finds himself amid the action, befriends a young princess and uses his knowledge of history to take a hand in proceedings of the generals, aristocrats and spies he finds himself among, rather in the fashion of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
“We introduce a school kid, we see him as around 10 years old, and he is able to respond to the action or ask questions about what is going on around him,” Wang said in a telephone interview before the show opened. “He brings the child’s perspective into the story.”
‘PLANTING A SEED’
Other modern characters include Ni’s elder brother, who is obsessed with Three Kingdoms-themed computer games, and his grandfather, a doddering old man who is constantly humming Beijing opera arias. Scriptwriter Lin Jian-hua (林建華) said that this replicated in a simple way how stories such as those from Gathering of Heroes continue to pervade modern Taiwanese society.
Lin said that he and others from Guoguang’s team felt great affinity for the character of Ni’s granddad, neglected by his family as a senile old man constantly humming his incomprehensible opera arias. Through Three Kingdoms’ Intriguing Stratagems, Ni gains a better understanding of his granddad’s world, which he discovers is rich in stories of adventure and intrigue, and not stuffy and boring as he initially thought.
“We make use of the abstract conventions of Beijing opera. This is one of the highlights of Chinese opera, something that is very traditional and also sparks children’s imagination,” Wang said. The language has been much simplified, though Wang said sections of singing have been preserved, often as signatures for specific characters, to give the young audience a feel for all aspects of Beijing opera. This is mixed in with ideas gleaned from such sources as children’s television. “This way, though the children are watching something very ancient, they can find in it much that is familiar. It makes the opera more accessible to them, and they store this in their heads. It is planting a seed that may blossom when they grow older,” Wang said.