Opera-Anatomy of a Star
Story/Zhang Bi-yu Typing/Hua Xu Yun
Source: Guang Hua Magazine (1981)
Yang Li-hua is a superstar of ke-tsai-hsi, Taiwanese drama. But for years, despite her great success and popularity, she had to have others read the script for her. She was embarrassed, so she determined to overcome. Now, as a result of her own efforts, she reads Mandarin scripts without help. At first, also, she could not speak Mandarin fluently with friends and colleagues; now she commands the language. It is not difficult to conclude that her success is a result of hard work.
In the theatric establishment, an iota of stigma is magnified into a world of scandal. But Li-hua, scrupulous in behavior, has never been involved. Few people know her at all except for the quixotic image she casts on the stage, like her mother before her, playing male roles.
“My mother was an opera actress,”Yang told the Sinorama reporter. “She was an accomplished talent who played young men during the 1950s in Ilan County, a stronghold of ke-tsai-hsi.”
At the end of the Ch'ing dynasty, Lin Wen-teng, a string instrument player, began to teach apprentice actors northern Chinese music, which - mixed with native Taiwan tunes and village songs-developed into ke-tsai-hsi.
Yang Li-hua's mother, Hsiao Chang-shou, also comes from a theatric family. Her father had organized a northern-China-music troupe which entertained in rural communities. The troupe recruited young people as apprentices. Instead of being paid, the young participants were required to subsidize the troupe. Hsiao grew up in a musical atmosphere and formally joined the troupe herself around 1931, the golden year of ke-tsai-hsi. After Taiwan's return to China in 1946, ke-tsai-hsi again prospered and Hsiao Chang-shou was busy acting across the island. It was the time she gave birth to Yang Li-hua.
The child began to play walk-on roles when she was only four years old. She first played an “important” part, together with her mother, in a number entitled “An An Drives Chickens”when she was only 7. She received little formal education; she followed the troupe playing small roles. She formally joined a troupe and began her professional career when she was 13.
At 18, Li-hua joined the Sai Chin Pao Troupe and performed in Manila. “Mother taught me to sing and act, but she never taught me to improve my singing or performance,”she said. “Actually, these come naturally through your own ability.” While she was in the Philippines she began to“live”the role she played, and lost herself on the stage.
Returning from the Philippines, the troupe was forced to disband. Musical opera had been replaced by other forms of entertainment; many artists had to find sideline jobs to make a living. Li-hua could not get another job for a long time.
A turning point of her career came in 1965 when she joined the Flying Horse Opera Troupe, affiliated with the Cheng Sheng Broadcasting Corporation. At that time television was in its nascent stage, and radio broadcasting was still very pervasive. Li-hua's radio broadcasts soon became very popular.
Then, she moved to the silver screen. When vernacular opera found its way onto TV, the Flying Horse Troupe was put under contract by TTV for weekly shows.
Audiences were fans of Li-hua's radio singing, but they had never seen her before. Her TV debut captivated the TV audience. Fan letters came like snowflakes from men and women, old and young.
Every few years, Li-hua goes on tour throughout the island or abroad. She faces seas of people. Before a performance, it is quite common for captivated people to swarm to her and place gold pendants around her neck, Others throw money in red gift packs onto the stage to demonstrate their admiration.
Li-hua is very serious during rehearsals. While other actors and actresses talk, smoke and laugh, she is engrossed in the script, planning each movement and gesture. Off stage she is no longer apart, but easygoing and amiable.
In 1969, TTV organized its own opera troupe and selected Li-hua as leader. At the beginning of this year the new troupe was invited to stage a show at the gigantic Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Most of the actors and actresses in the troupe had never performed on such a big stage, and near panicked. Li-hua borrowed acrobats from another troupe to buttress her staff and the show was very successful.
To assure future successes, she persuaded TTV to set aside funds for the country's first ke-tsai-hsi training class. There were more than 3,000 applicants for 20 positions. “The class is my greatest contribution to ke-tsai-hsi. I feel even more satisfied with it than with my own performing career,” she said.