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TV star can still cast spell over live audience
By Diana Lin    [ Source: Taiwan Journal - 10 Nov 1995 ]

Whether in everyday dress or elaborate stage costume, Yang Li-hua (·¨ÄRªá) is a famous face among fans of Taiwanese opera on the island.

In the National Theater performance of "Lu Wen-lung (³°¤åÀs)", Yang plays a young man who grapples with feelings of love, hate and clan loyalty. The dramatic plot entranced audiences during the October 25-28 engagement in Taipei. Speak her name and people in Taiwan conjure images of heroic men squashing evil and doing righteous deeds.

She is Yang Li-hua , superstar of Taiwanese opera. A generation of island residents have sat before their television sets transfixed by Yang's performances, forgetting for an hour's entertainment that a woman is playing the lead male role.

During a four- day engagement at Taipei's National Theater, Yang's acting and singing cast the same magic spell over a live audience. For the October 25-28 shows, Yang reached back 30 years to restage a traditional opera that she had not appeared in

The Taiwanese opera "Lu Wen-lung," in which Yang made her debut when she was 17 years old, owns a special place in her heart. "My mother is the one who first taught me the story," she said.

In the play, Yang plays Lu Wen-lung, the son of a famous Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279) general. The plot centers on Lu's adventures as he searches for his roots, encounters various enemies, and eventually yearns to return home.

Like most Chinese folk operas, "Lu Wen-lung" is rich in history, irony and lessons in life. The background of the story dates to 1127, when the Jurchen Tartars captured the Sung capital of Kaifeng in northern mainland China. The conquest, which marked the birth of the Chin court, forced the Sung court to escape southward, where they set up a new kingdom known as the Southern Sung. Hungry to dominate the entire Chinese territory, the Chin forces invaded the south, defeated the Southern Sung general Lu Teng and captured his infant son, Lu.

The actors on stage take over at this point. Without children of his own, the Chin emperor decides to adopt the young Lu as his son.

He raises the boy to be a brave, skillful warrior. As a young man, Lu falls in love with Yehlu Fu-jung, the daughter of a general, strengthening his bond with the Chin clan.

But one day the strong, handsome Lu learns that his true bloodline is that of the Sung clan. He begins to anguish over his dilemma. Where should his loyalties lie, with his Sung people or with the Chin emperor, who has raised him lovingly but who killed his real father? Yehlu's father soon discovers Lu's true background and sets out to kill the young man. Lu, however, manages to slay his attacker, after which he flees the Chin state.

It is Yehlu who then faces a dilemma, learning that her lover has taken the life of her father. She ventures out to track down Lu, uncertain of what she will actually do after locating him.

But her love for Lu proves strong. When Chin troops ambush Lu, Yehlu acts quickly to save his life, only to meet her own death in a hail of arrows from her father's soldiers. The curtain falls as the Sung military arrives, eliminates the enemy, and welcomes Lu back into their fold.

The play dazzled the Taipei audiences with demonstrations of martial arts. But it also had a tender side, that being the bittersweet romance between Lu and Yehlu.

The versatile Yang excels in both areas; she can play it hard or soft. In the beginning of "Lu Wen-lung," Yang skillfully wields two spears in a rhythmic combat dance considered one of the most difficult martial art scenes in Taiwanese opera. To ensure a perfect scene, the actress said she practised with the spears three hours a day for an entire month.

In the past, audiences of traditional Taiwanese opera wanted to see as many martial art scenes as possible, even if the physical feats on stage had nothing to do with the plot. For the Taipei performances, however, Yang toned down the combat scenes to give the story a more intellectual appeal.

Born to a Taiwanese opera family, Yang was 8 years old when she started traveling with her mother, a well-known actress in her own right, to performances throughout the island. Those were difficult times, as the family had little money. Things improved, however, as teenager Yang began her rapid rise to stardom.

The notoriety Yang received after the rousing debut in "Lu Wen-lung" helped her to join a renowned opera troupe. The switch from her family's troupe meant higher wages, but it also represented a break from the security of being under her mother's protective wing.

Off on her own, Yang performed with her new troupe overseas as well as in Taiwan. Before long, she had earned enough money to buy a house for her parents, the first they had ever owned.

"Ever since then, my family has been able to live a comfortable, secure life," she said proudly.

But the 1960s brought new complications. The movie industry boom forced the performance theaters across the island to convert into cinemas, threatening the demise of traditional folk art shows.

Yang fought back, however, by adapting to the times herself. She joined a broadcasting company and breathed new life into Taiwanese opera by singing the performances on the radio.

Television followed. Yang made use of that medium as well, performing Taiwanese opera for the Taiwan Television Enterprise (TTV).

Yang's television performances won high praise and made her a household name. In 1969, she was invited by the TTV to become the leader of the station's Taiwanese opera troupe. The plays she produced drew huge television audiences.

But you never forget your first love. Despite the many years of television stardom, Yang returned to the stage in 1981 for a large-scale production at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei.

The show received rave reviews. And the next year, the Taiwan Provincial Government invited Yang to tour across the island and stage traditional folk theater for laborers.

Her debut at the National Theater came in 1990, when she staged a production of "Lu Pu and Tiao Chan (§f¥¬»P¶I¼`)". At about the same time, Yang started to contemplate the notion that Taiwanese opera might die someday unless an effort is made to cultivate a younger generation of actors. To perpetuate the art form, she helped launch a series of workshops to train the Taiwanese opera stars of tomorrow.

Yang's performances have won acclaim both at home and abroad. In 1988, she received Taiwan's Golden Bell Award for producing the best traditional opera program. In 1990, she was named one of Asia's most outstanding artists by the Chinese American Arts Council in New York.

Then in 1993, she received another Golden Bell for her lifetime contribution to the development of Taiwanese opera.

Earlier this year, Yang established her own workshop, the "Li Hua Arts & Communication Corp." The company is dedicated to the cultivation of new talent and the production of new operatic programs.

Under its initial two-year plan, the company will produce four to six Taiwanese operas and two traditional Chinese soap operas for television.

Next year marks Yang's 30th year on television. Even so, she plans to hit the tour road again and give live performances in communities islandwide. "As a folk art that originated in the countryside, Taiwanese opera must return to the people," she said. "I hope to visit 309 towns across Taiwan to let the public appreciate the beauty of Taiwanese opera." There are other projects in the works. In one of the most ambitious ones, Yang intends to establish a major foundation dedicated to the promotion of Taiwanese opera. The foundation will provide subsidies to student clubs in universities and colleges to help perpetuate the traditional art form.