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Yang Li-hua's A Life for the Master Set to Make Box Office History

By Yang Ling-yuan / Translated by Scott Gregory    [ Source: Taiwan Panorama - 1 Nov 2007 ]

After years of waiting, fans will once again have the chance to see Yang Li-hua take the stage in a new production of A Life for the Master. In a display of virtuosity, she'll play three separate parts.

Late October is high season for film, art, and performance festivals. Most of them are oriented toward younger crowds, but there is one event that stars a performer our grandmother's age-Taiwanese Opera star Yang Li-hua is scheduled to perform a new work, A Life for the Master, on October 25. The 63-year-old Yang, who's set the standard for Taiwanese Opera for decades now, is to play three parts. Many are expecting a performance to go down in the history of the art form.

Back in 1966, black-and-white television had just come to Taiwan. On Thursday afternoons as the theme to Taiwan Television's opera hour played, young and old would gather around the set. Everyone wanted to see the Tienma Opera Troupe and its young star, Yang Li-hua, perform moving tales of loyalty and devotion.

Dream lover

With her distinctive eyes, Yang could make herself at turns commanding and tender. She had a sophisticated air about her, and her voice sounded honest and full of emotion. Since her first appearance 40 years ago at age 22, she's been in nearly 170 productions on TTV. She specializes in male roles, playing everything from emperors and aristocrats to warriors and beggars. She's become a favorite of young and old Taiwanese, and many women have come to think of her as the ideal lover. Female fans crowd around the TV studio bearing fancy gifts and creating traffic jams. Ten years ago, Yang was voted one of the ten hottest idols by a gay and lesbian organization-despite being over fifty!

Yang was born into a theatrical family. Her maternal grandfather organized an amateur traditional beiguan music troupe in Ilan. Her mother performed male roles under the stage name Hsiao Chang-shou in the Yi-chun Yuan troupe. Practically born onstage, Yang first assisted her mother in a production at the age of four. At the age of seven, she played the lead in a play called An-An Chases Chickens and captured the hearts of her audience.

Yang, who idolized her mother, was for a time sent back to Ilan to attend elementary school. But she had already tasted the joy of the theater. She'd visit her parents during school vacations, and one time when it was time to go back to Ilan, she hopped off the train at the last minute. No matter how her parents pleaded with or scolded her, she was determined to stay and study Taiwanese Opera. She's been performing ever since. That was in the 1950s, when Taiwanese Opera was being performed in theaters rather than outdoors as it had been traditionally. Yang's parents were members of a touring troupe and for years the entire family of seven traveled with them, living out their lives backstage. Later, with the rising popularity of Taiwanese-language movies, opera theaters were converted into movie theaters and indoor opera began to disappear. Yang, the eldest child of the family, often went hungry so her brothers and sisters would have enough to eat. She vowed to make it big and lift her family out of poverty.

The move to broadcasting

She made her starring debut at age 16 in the opera Lu Wen-lung. Her performance was well-received, catching the eye of the Sai Chin Pao opera troupe. The troupe took her on, and she was promoted alongside Hsiao Ming-ming, Hsiao Feng-hsien, and other popular stars as the troupe's "Seven Immortals." They went on a six-month tour of the Philippines, where there were many wealthy ethnic Chinese. Though it was hard for Yang to be away from home for the first time, she earned enough money to buy her first house and developed a Southeast Asian fan base.

She returned to Taiwan to find that opera was in even worse shape than before. It was largely relegated to outdoor religious ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, so opportunities to perform were few. Though she'd just returned from a successful tour, she was to be out of work for an entire year. While she was worrying about her economic situation, the Chengsheng Broadcasting Corporation was starting to put Taiwanese Opera on the air. It brought on the Tienma Opera Troupe to perform radio shows, and Yang became a radio performer, renewing her faith in the opera.

"I never realized that a Taiwanese Opera performance doesn't have to rely on bodily motions," she says. "You can make opera lovers hear it all with just a microphone." As there was no audience watching, money could be saved by having one performer use different voices to play several characters at the same time. Performing in falsetto was hard on Yang, who in the past had always pushed her voice low to play male characters. But the experience gave new exposure to her talents.

Performing opera using only her voice was not Yang's greatest challenge. The only television station at the time, TTV, was also looking to add Taiwanese Opera to its programming. Yang's troupe, Tienma, beat out the competition with a performance of Loyal Yue Fei with her in the lead. It won a weekly spot on television.

"It's stressful doing a live TV broadcast," she says. "You can't make any mistakes at all in positioning or staging. At that time, the performances weren't recorded, so I could never see how I did. I could only get feedback from family and friends afterwards." Yang's mother was her most loyal viewer, and the advice she gave was professional and straightforward. Yang owes a lot to her mother's input.

Reform and reinvention

When Yang was 25, the TV station's general manager appointed her the leader of the Taiwan Television Opera Troupe, and also made her the show's producer. She went from being a simple performer to a figure who would determine the future of the art form. She felt that traditional Taiwanese Opera was held back by the stage-not only were the backdrops and props simplistic, there were also only two or three actors in each scene. On TV, it all came across as cheap and fake. She pushed for more lifelike productions, with more attention paid to props and costumes. She made sure that the staging seemed more realistic-an emperor, for example, should be surrounded by eunuchs and ministers, and the famed Judge Bao should be accompanied by his enforcers.

Also, as producer she took steps to make the productions more dramatic. Actors in Taiwanese Opera traditionally had a lot of leeway in how they presented their characters, but Yang held tighter control. In addition to having script outlines made, she also hired Ti Shan to write new pieces and Chen Tsung-ming to direct. She created stronger parts for actors playing male roles. She also had people search for lost Taiwanese Opera plays, write new melodies, and develop new singing styles.

Due to political restrictions at the time, Taiwanese Opera could only be on the air for 30 minutes. With commercials and credits, there were only about 23 minutes for the opera itself. A tight pace had to be maintained so all the lines could be sung and all the actions could be performed, so Yang cut out long, slow weeping scenes and tried to stick with faster-paced material. She added detailed dialogue and choreography. Though older audiences resisted these changes, the performances won larger audiences and brought Taiwanese Opera into the age of television.

Top of the pile

For decades, Yang produced one success after another: Seven Heroes and Five Gallants, The Legend of the Yang Clan, Xue Rengui Conquers the East, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, and A Civet for a Prince were all hits. The 1979 production A Hero's Shadow in the Autumn Frost used cinematic special effects to heighten the excitement of swordfighting scenes. The following year, Xue Pinggui was the first Taiwanese Opera to be filmed outdoors, with actors riding horses across sands. The 1992 production The Patrolman and the Thief was filmed on board a pirate ship in the ocean off Cebu, the Philippines. The cast enjoyed themselves, resulting in a highly watchable opera.

In addition to making Taiwanese Opera more elaborate and modernized, Yang also aimed to turn what was often thought of as a vulgar art form into high art. In 1981, she put on a performance of The Fisherwoman at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall with assistance from students of the Haikuang Opera School. In 1991, her production of Lu Bu and Diao Chan held at the National Theater caused a sensation. Two years later, her God of the River Luo was filmed on location in Beijing. She had Huang Shi, a renowned composer from the mainland, write music to be performed by a symphony orchestra. The production was the first Taiwanese Opera program to be shown on Taiwanese prime time TV.

In addition to television productions, the widely talented Yang also starred in many Taiwanese-language films. One of those, the 1981 film Chen San and Wu Niang, was the last such Taiwanese-language production.

In the 1990s, cable television became widespread in Taiwan and the original three broadcast networks lost their dominance. And though the tradition-minded Yang tried twice to develop a new generation of performers who could take up the mantle, she could not find anyone who could fill her role. At the same time, TTV was making moves to take back the rights to the television show against Yang's will. This put a damper on their working relationship, and the Taiwan Television Yang Li-hua Opera show came to an end.

A happy off-stage life

Having left the opera world, Yang was lucky to have the loving environment of the home she'd made with the renowned orthopedic surgeon Hung Wen-tung. She was willing to give up the idea of having children of her own in order to look after Hung's four children from a previous marriage. She's perfectly content to spend her days cooking, looking after pets, and gardening, and she's found success in the restaurant industry, but she has never forgotten the theater. Whenever there is the right script and the right opportunity, she is ready to return to the stage.

She has been absent from the limelight for four years now, but she's been asked to return to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the National Theater by performing new versions of the operas A Civet for a Prince and A Life for the Master. She's risen to the occasion, too-not only has she reworked the songs for the opera and newly choreographed the works in collaboration with experienced performer Hsiao Feng-hsien and Peking Opera director Chu Lu-hao, she's also taking on the challenge of playing three different parts. As well as playing the Song Dynasty emperor Renzong, who was traded for a raccoon as a child and who as an adult sought out his birth mother from among the commoners, she will also play a loyal minister and the commoner who looks after the emperor's birth mother.

Though she hasn't performed for years, Yang will have to use all the skills she's acquired over a lifetime. In just two and half hours, she'll have to go through three different ages, personalities, and personal backgrounds. She'll play a young male character, an old male character, and a clown-it will be the greatest challenge she's faced in her half a century of performing. In order to keep from disappointing her audience, she's been working out and getting fit all year. Tickets, which were priced between NT$2,000 and NT$5,000, sold out within half an hour of going on sale, so it seems that Yang Li-hua is already making history once again.