The New Melody series of theatrical performances from the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) is back with a production of Pheonix Pin (釵頭鳳), a Beijing opera that is being staged to complement the Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song (文藝紹興 — 南宋藝術與文化特展) exhibition. The performances will take place every Wednesday at 2:30pm at the museum’s auditorium until Dec. 22.
Pheonix Pin is not a particularly famous opera, and in recent years has rarely been staged in Taiwan, but it has, for the purposes of the New Melody series, the inestimable advantage of being based on a poem by the Southern Song (南宋) Dynasty poet and calligrapher Lu You (陸游). An example of Lu’s calligraphy work is featured in the exhibition. The opera itself was written during the Early Republican period by the Beijing Opera performer Xun Hui-sheng (荀慧生), and tells the story of the tragic love between Lu and his cousin Tang Hui-xian (唐蕙仙).
Lu was a scholar, statesman and poet whose enormous and wide-ranging talent generally brought him nothing but trouble in his official career. As a poet he was prolific, and in many works he expressed strong patriotic views (he was a hawk at a time when the political climate favored appeasement of the northern nomads who destroyed the Northern Song Dynasty and eventually destroyed the Southern Song Dynasty as well) and his poems about his personal life, including love, adopt an equally unrestrained and passionate tone. A number of his poems, including the one on which the opera is based, are widely known even today.
The opera, which is being presented by the professional troupe of the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts (台灣戲曲學院), does not feature the sort of opera superstars seen in previous productions in the series; nor does it attempt any modernizing tricks. It is a solid meat-and-potatoes production with an experienced cast, a conventional stage setting and few props.
The moral norms of Beijing opera have not been tweaked to make them more palatable for a modern audience.
When Lu and Tang finally meet again after many years of separation, largely due to the interference of Lu’s mother, Tang is already on the point of death. She is still able to tell Lu that he should quickly find another woman, for to die without issue would show grave disrespect to his mother.
The hectoring moral tone of Beijing opera comes through what is otherwise supposed to be a romantic tragedy, and might be distasteful to some, but with all the modernizing going on these days in opera, its nice to see something that is so shamelessly unreconstructed. The opera’s tone is intentional, for it references another work on display as part of the Dynastic Renaissance exhibition: a handbook of filial piety (男女孝經手卷) composed by the Emperor Gaozong (宋高宗, 1107 to 1187) as a manual of proper behavior.
As with all productions for the New Melody series, this performance has the inestimable advantage of providing adequate English-language subtitles and an excellent written introduction to the opera in English and Japanese. With a playing time of 90 minutes, it is a perfect introduction to Beijing opera. Admission is free. Bookings can be made through the museum Web site at tech2.npm.gov.tw/signup/frontend/index.asp. Tickets are also available at the door.