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Spectacular Taiwan Opera uncoils

A famous Taiwan Opera company performs the "Legend of White Snake" in a multi-media - and crashing water - extravaganza in Hongkou Stadium on June 16 to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. Pan Xiaoyi reports.

Four hundred tons of water pour from the sky, costumed crabs and other sea creatures stream in all directions. Water churns, real fires break out, smoke rises and the battle begins in a spectacle that seems to surround the audience.

This battle between good and evil is not science fiction or surrealist performance. It's a traditional Taiwan Opera (Ge Zai Xi) with a high-tech twist performed by the famous Taiwan Ming Hwa Yuan opera company.

English subtitles will be provided.

The rising floodwater scene is the climax of "The Legend of White Snake," the company's signature production, which will be staged on June 16 at Hongkou Football Stadium.

June 16 is the Dragon Boat Festival this year on the Chinese lunar calendar. In Taiwan it is a tradition to watch "Legend of White Snake" opera on the festival night.

The opera is also the opening performance of Taiwan Week at the World Expo Shanghai.

Around 25,000 tickets are available.

A dozen fire engines will be used to pour the 400 tons of water during the climax. The actress, who plays the White Snake sorceress in love with a mortal, will soar 15 stories high in her victory at Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province.

The audience near the stage has been known to get a bit wet.

Ming Hwa Yuan, an 80-year-old company, is bringing 18 containers of stage properties for spectacular multi-media effects.

The troupe includes 270 members, including opera performers, musicians, technicians and crew. Around 50 local performers and staff have been hired.

The production, which has been staged internationally, treats the entire stage as an installation art piece that can be transformed from a performance platform to other settings and finally to Jinshan Temple in the final scene.

White Snake is a story about a white snake sorceress who falls in love with a mortal. Though it has elements of horror, it is usually told today as a story of undying love.

Taiwan Opera is the only form of Han Chinese traditional opera known to have originated in Taiwan. As with other Chinese operas, interest in the ancient art form has faded.

Local opera

But the performance of "Legend of White Snake" has injected new life into the old forms and attracted new audiences.

"Some opera fans in Taiwan plan to charter a plane to Shanghai to see the show because our performance has become a tradition during the Dragon Boat Festival," says Chen Sheng-fu, president and art director of Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwan Opera Co.

Ge Zai Xi is Taiwan's locally developed opera performed in colloquial Taiwanese language.

Females usually take the roles of men. Unlike other traditional operas that requires unusual vocal range, the songs and dialogue of Ge Zai Xi are performed in a natural voice.

At its peak of popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, performances were staged all the time in every corner of Taiwan, from cities to towns to the countryside. Ming Hwa Yuan gave more than 50 shows monthly during that period.

But the popularity of television, film and other new entertainment put many theaters out of business. Only one in 10 performance troupes remained and most productions were staged in the open air.

"Opera troupes lived as vagrants. There used to be a saying that parents without money, power or position would send their children to an opera troupe," says Chen, president of Ming Hwa Yuan.

His grandfather, known as the godfather of Ge Zai Xi, lived a hard life with meager income and low status, he says. Once he went to see his father and found the troupe resting in a temple fair, side by side with beggars.

"That image has lingered in my mind and never gone away. I swore I would revive the art one day," says Chen.

He took over the family theater group in 1980 and led Ming Hwa Yuan to break free of the shackles of tradition to emerge as an artistic powerhouse. It integrates folk arts, drama, poetry, jazz, acrobatics, visual arts, modern dance, Chuanju Opera and face-changing, modern theater technology and other elements.

The performances constantly challenge perceptions of traditional theater with snappy versions of classical tunes, startling and majestic visuals and energetic stage presence.

Sometimes even the effect of black-light theater and flying trapeze are employed.

Chen went on to study film so that he could integrate modern elements and attract younger audiences. He set up a film and TV production company and encouraged employees to work in both to experience both art forms.

Sun Tsui-Feng, principal of Ming Hwa Yuan, is a super idol in Taiwan, with fans ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s. She is also popular in television series, films and studio recordings. She has performed modern dance and contemporary theater.

"Ge Zai Xi performance and television programs complement each other. Ge Zai Xi audience can become TV viewers and TV programs can bring more fans to the Ge Zai Xi stage," says Chen.

Ming Hwa Yuan also tried to regain old fans and find new ones by actively performing on campuses, in hospitals, prisons, construction sites and elsewhere. The company also performs in theaters and public squares.

As to whether these changes spoil the essence of the traditional art, Chen says: "Tradition does not mean being rigidness and out of fashion. We kept the cultural essence while adding new techniques relevant to current times.

"Tradition is also about bringing family together and we create shows favored by both old and young," he says, noting that spectators bring family and friends.

Chen hopes that the updated Taiwan Opera will hold its own nationally and internationally.

"We're already known as Broadway in the Orient," he says. "Our goal is to make Ming Hwa Yuan not only an art group, but also a cultural innovation industry."

Date: June 16, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, 444 Dongjiangwan Rd

Tickets: 100-1,000 yuan

Tel: 400-818-3333

Snake Tale

There are many versions in folklore. Here's one.

A benevolent white snake sorceress learns to master supernatural forces and tries for 1,000 years to become a mortal and experience human love. The heaven forbids such unions but the snake becomes a woman named Bai Suzhen and escapes to marry a young mortal scholar Xu Xian who saved the life of a white snake when he was a boy.

They fall in love and wed. Bai becomes pregnant.

But the monk Fahai, who had imprisoned the White Snake, is enraged and vows to recapture the sorceress and break up the pair.

Fahai warns Xu but he doesn't believe him. Finally, Bai is exposed as a huge snake coiled on the conjugal bed - after she is obliged to drink realgar wine, a potent mixture of arsenic sulfide consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival. It weakens her powers and she is exposed as a serpent.

The husband dies of shock, Bai returns to human form, flies to the Kunlun Mountains and steals ganoderma herb - reserved for immortals - to resurrect him.

He returns to life, but is tortured by doubt though she tells him he saw only a reptilian vision. The monk Fahai again intervenes.

The tale, originally with 16 episodes, has many twists and turns and different endings in different versions.


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