Embroidered robe helps bridge traditions

National Guoguang Opera Company and the Yokohama Noh Theatre were unable to completely fuse their very different theatrical forms, but three years of collaboration has resulted in a production that fully highlights the skills of the performers

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

Sat, Sep 01, 2018 - Page 13

The National Guoguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團) and the Yokohama Noh Theatre have both developed reputations for being willing to collaborate with artists from different fields while preserving their respective art forms.

Under director Wang An-chi (王安祈), Guoguang has adapted novelist Eileen Chang’s (張愛玲) The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) in 2006, collaborated with US theater director Robert Wilson on Orlando, based on the Virginia Woolf novel, and interpreted Shakespeare with 2012’s Cleopatra and Her Fools (艷后和她的小丑們), the latter two for the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts.

The Yokohama Noh Theatre, under director Masayuki Nakamura, has worked with Italian director and choreographer Luca Veggetti for last year’s Left-Right-Left a contemporary dance work with Noh music, as well as with New Tango composer and pianist Pablo Ziegler for a full-length concert.

So one can see why a collaboration between the Taipei-based Guoguang and the Yokohama theater might seem like a natural progression, especially as the opera company has been doing more Kun productions in recent years. Some have compared Beijing opera to Japan’s Kabuki theater and Kun to Noh theater.

Three years ago, a team from Yokohama came to Taipei to discuss a joint production, which was originally envisioned as a complete fusion of Kun and Noh. However, the traditions and dictates of the two art forms led to major headaches, and even some moments when giving up seemed like a good idea.

After spending about a year trying to create a fusion script, they realized that there was really no way to blend Kun with Noh because of Noh’s strict rules, so they decided to focus on the music as the platform for collaboration, particularly the samisen, for in Noh, the musicians and singers carry the storyline along.

Renowned samisen master Tokiwazu Mozibei was invited as musical director to help introduce the nagauta music, which is traditionally done by performers who sing and play the samisen, to audiences in Taiwan.

Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group (莎士比亞的妹妹們的劇團) founder Wang Chia-ming (王嘉明), no stranger to combining Eastern and Western theater traditions, was brought on to direct the show.

The result, The Dream of an Embroidered Robe (繡襦夢), which opens at the National Taichung Theater on Saturday next week for two shows and then will be performed at Guoguang’s home base, the Taiwan Traditional Theatre Center in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), the following weekend, is a three-in-one production that offers audiences a sample of the two different traditions.

The first segment, or Act I, is the “Beating The Son” scene from the traditional Kun play The Story of an Embroidered Robe (繡襦記), featuring Wen Yu-hang (溫宇航) and Tang Wen-hua (唐文華).

The Ming Dynasty-era play tells of a Tang Dynasty scholar who visits Changan to take the imperial examination as his father wants, but meets a famous prostitute and falls in love with her. Forgetting the exam, he spends all his money at the brothel. Penniless, he is reduced to begging in the street.

When his father learns what happens, he goes to Changan to find his son and beats him, leaving him injured in the snow. The prostitute finds the son, covers him with her embroidered robe to keep him warm and takes him home, having decided to leave the brothel.

She encourages him to return to his studies and he eventually earns first place in the exam. His father later relents, accepts the prostitute as his son’s wife and they all live happily ever after.

Part two is a “Shiguakumi,” a Nihonbuyu or traditional Japanese dance, based on the Noh play Breeze Through The Pines, featuring musicians and artists from Yokohama, with Mozibei providing the traditional joujuri narrative.

Breeze Through The Pines is a story about a disgraced official who takes up with two lower-class sisters, but when he is pardoned, he leaves them and never returns. A wandering monk later encounters the two women’s spirits, and one of them, dressed in the clothes of her lost lover, dances out her longing for him, before the sisters ask the monk to exorcise their spirits.

Part three is a new Kun play, The Dream of an Embroidered Robe, but performed in the Nihonbuyu style by Wen and Liu Chia-hou (劉珈后).

It takes a more realistic view of the love story between the scholar and the former prostitute, recognizing that it would have been very unlikely they would actually have been allowed to marry.

In this tale, the scholar takes up a new post and must leave his love behind. She accompanies him halfway on his journey before returning to Changan alone, but leaves him with her embroidered robe. Now old and dying, the scholar dreams of his long-ago love, with her robe embodying her spirit in his fantasy.

The Dream of an Embroidered Robe premiered at the Yokohama Noh Theatre, which has one of the oldest Noh stages in Japan, on June 9.

However, since the traditional Noh stage is completely different from the proscenium stages of the two theaters in Taiwan, in terms of layout, size and audience location, Wang has basically completely revamped the production.

I sat down with Wang Chia-ming and Wen last month after watching a rehearsal of the third act to ask about their experiences working on the show and the challenges it presented.

Working on the production turned into a dialogue of different theater traditions, and the physical limitations — a single bridge entrance and a roofed stage — and restrictions about what could be done on a Noh stage affected the way the script was written, Wang said.

There are three real “nos” in Noh: performers must wear socks, no shoes are allowed; the lighting must be traditional and electronic amplification of voices is not allowed, he said, heaving a big sigh when he mentioned the lighting.

The script they came up with for the third section is appropriate for a performance in Noh tradition, featuring a protagonist as the main performer with the other performer representing a character from the spirit world, Wang said.

They also found a way to keep the idea of the robe as the central image and as a protagonist, as is the tradition in Noh, he added.

The story is about the love between a man and a woman who are doomed never to be together, with the woman becoming the spirit of the robe.

In Taichung and Taipei, they will be able to use more of the stage than in Yokohama, and the stage will have three entrances, Wang said, adding that he is using lighting effects in for the new portion to help create the structure of the story.

Wang Tien-hung (王天宏) was tapped for the lighting.

As was done in Yokohama, the Japanese musicians will be seated in a row along the back of the stage, while the Chinese opera orchestra will be behind a screen to the right of the stage, Wang Chia-ming said.

Wen said said the biggest challenge came when he went to Yokahama in August last year to learn Noh dance techniques, including how to hold a fan, and then he had to try to figure out how to incorporate those with Kun traditions.

Creating new movements and making adjustments when shows are performed on different stages is just part of his job; it’s the nature of the art, he said.

Everything still revolves around the requirements of his character, and he was not going to stray too far from that, Wen said.

Given all the time he has devoted to learning the art of Kun, its traditions had to be maintained in this collaboration, he added.

The show is certainly a test of Wen’s skills and talent, as his character changes in age from 20 to 60 in the third section.

The audiences in Yokohama liked the coproduction, Wang Chia-ming and Wen said, adding that they are looking forward to seeing how local audiences react.

The shows in Taichung and Taipei will be performed in Mandarin and Japanese with Chinese and English subtitles.