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Passion of Taiwanese opera wins high praise
By Rita Fang    [ Source: Taiwan Journal - 17 Nov 2000 ]

Throughout Taiwan, people young and old alike know her. Yang Li-hua (·¨ÄRªá) is a household name. The Taiwanese opera superstar has countless fans around the island, including President Chen Shui-bian.

Chen and his wife were in the audience enjoying a recent performance by Yang at the National Theater in downtown Taipei. In fact, Yang's six-day engagement attracted people from all walks of life. Tickets for the shows were purchased months in advance.

But the fever for watching this remarkable performer continues. In January, Yang--playing her legendary forever-young-and-handsome male lead--will lead her troupe on a tour of eight Taiwan counties. They are Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Taitung, Ilan, Hualien and Keelung.

The last time that Yang performed on the stage of the National Theater, Taiwan's premier opera venue, was five years ago. Back then, the play was "Lu Wen-lung (³°¤åÀs)", a story about a young warrior who grapples with feelings of love, hate, and clan loyalty during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279).

This time Yang and her troupe performed "Liang-Zhu ±ç¯¬", a Chinese love story famous for its romantic yet tragic ending. Separated because of their feuding families, the hero Liang Shan-po dies of lovesickness and the heroine Zhu Ying-tai commits suicide. Both then become butterflies.

The traditional story has been adapted for the screen, radio and television. "This is one of the earliest and most traditional plays in the repertoire of Taiwanese opera," Yang said at a press conference in Taipei.

Touched by the passion of her audiences, the celebrated performer decided to hold a workshop to return to society some of the love that fans have given to her over the years. From advertisements that she ran, Yang selected 40 students for the workshop--which aimed to preserve Taiwanese opera by cultivating future talents.

In recent years, Taiwanese opera--like other traditional arts--has seen its popularity decline due to the invasion of Western influences and an exodus by audiences to karaokes, discos and movies with dazzling special effects. Moreover, some outstanding performers have left the theatrical circles to accept lucrative corporate jobs that offer a higher standard of living.

The younger generation especially cannot accept Taiwanese opera, which has a melancholic tone that actually reflects sentiments from when local society was under the 1895-1945 Japanese occupation. It is difficult for today's young people to relate to the roadside-theater quality of the traditional folk art, and to the fact that in agrarian society Taiwanese opera was performed to appease the gods.

Yang, however, is zealous about promoting her beloved art form. And she does her part to take care of people in need as well. So far, her troupe has donated more than US$120,000 from their performance receipts to help support reconstruction projects after Taiwan's devastating September 1999 earthquake.

The show at the National Theater, which was also a charity performance, drew fans of Taiwanese opera from Singapore and the Philippines. The art form originated about 100 years ago in Ilan County in the northeast part of the island. It spread to Southeast Asian countries when people from Taiwan immigrated there. In the past, Yang and her troupe have performed in these countries.

After watching the performance, which lasted two and a half hours, President Chen said the play has qualities similar to those of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the popular movie "Titanic." Taiwanese opera, he added, is worthy of introducing to the world.

"It is as moving and excellent as Western opera, yet more touching when performed in our mother tongue Taiwanese," Chen said.

He invited Yang's troupe to take part in the government's cultural exchange program and perform in Europe next year.

Former President Lee Teng-hui, long an avid supporter of native culture, and other prominent figures also attended the National Theater performance.

For them, Yang's Taiwanese opera productions on television bring back memories from years ago. Yang first put Taiwanese opera on television in 1961, winning widespread popularity for the folk art.

Devoted to this traditional art for decades, Yang has had a great influence on the development of Taiwanese opera, which is often performed outdoors. Born in Ilan County, Yang sang and acted with her mother in a touring troupe as a child.

Possessing a strong sense of mission, Yang continuously brings innovations to the traditional art. This can be seen in the stage design and special costumes for the nine-act "Liang-Zhu." Since 1980, Yang has been collecting old scripts, adapting the tones of lyrics and dialogue, and developing programs for the training of actors. Actually, the earliest Taiwanese opera performances did not have scripts and were completely impromptu. Many of the actors grew up in the troupes, and thus were thoroughly familiar with the plays.

In one scene of "Liang-Zhu," Yang as the male lead has to carry the heroine on her back for several minutes. Yang said she is physically comfortable with this, as she has performed the scene many times during her long career.

Yang's excellent students Chen Ya-lan (³¯¨ÈÄõ) and Chi Li-ju (¬öÄR¦p) played the other two important characters in the play. Both Chen and Chi have been in the Taiwanese opera circles for more than 10 years. Chen is also a popular actress, singer and hostess on television.

Whether on stage or not, Yang always speaks in a low, sonorous voice.

"Taiwanese opera is the treasure of our native culture. As long as the audiences like this traditional art, I will continue performing it," she said.