Top Chinese opera star visits Cupertino
【CUPERTINO COURIER/Suzanne Tay-Kelley】

As a 7-year-old Beijing opera novice in Taiwan, Kuo Hsiao-Chuang wept every weekend when her parents returned her to the tough regimen of the boarding school after a day’s break. She stayed at the institution until she was 19, studying the martial arts, drama, dance, singing, and the classical legends that are the stuff of the centuries-old art form.

Today the dutiful daughter is a superstar at home who has established her own avant-garde opera company, and an ambassador abroad who has introduced Beijing opera to captivated audiences around the world.

Kuo, who has won acclaim for sparking a renaissance of the fading art with the introduction of modern dramatic techniques, visited Cupertino last week to inaugurate a U.S. outreach center that will promote her 12-year-old Ya Ying Ensemble.

“She’s definitely one of the top” among the 10 major opera companies in Taiwan, said Chen-Ching Li, cultural division director of the Taiwan government’s Coordination Council for North American Affairs in San Francisco, and an obvious fan.

At a time when MTV is becoming more alluring to the young than the opera house, Kuo has cultivated a cross-generational following by streamlining plot lines and dialogue, replacing stylized movements with realistic choreography, and weaving elaborate backdrops, costumes and special lighting effects into the traditionally Spartan productions.

Although some controversy lingers about her innovations to a format dating to at least the Ming Dynasty, many of Taiwan’s other opera groups have taken similar steps to appeal to a broader audience as well, Li said.

“There’s great relief that she’s reviving Chinese opera,” said Li, also a professor of language and culture in Taiwan’s National Normal University. “We’re happy.”

Surrounded by her posters in the tiny Stevens Creek Boulevard outreach office, the woman credited with launching a mini-cultural revolution speaks of her life in the theater with self-effacing graciousness.

An instructor at the University of Chinese Culture in Taipei, Kuo is a slender, unmarried 39, as striking in person as the exquisite maiden in flowing robes and pearl-studded tiara on her program covers.

Remembering her lukewarm introduction to the opera, Kuo says in Mandarin that she is now very grateful to her father, the ardent opera buff who nudged her into the field.

Kuo, who first performed in America in 1973, remembers her audience being impressed by the acrobatics and the resplendent costumes. But she wants to foster a deeper understanding of the art in this country.

Her sister, Sabrina Liu, has been entrusted with achieving that goal.

“I will use my sister as a bridge not just for Ya Ying but for Chinese opera,” said Kuo, who flew back to Taiwan on Sunday.

The effervescent Liu, who runs a muscle-toning business next door, said she chose Cupertino as a base because there are many Asians and “people here are very nice.”

She added: “We’re trying to set up another office in London.”

An active volunteer in the Silicon Valley Chinese School, Liu plans to contact Cupertino schools to offer herself as a resource on the subject.

Aside from breaking down cultural barriers, she also sees her mission as one of reminding Chinese Americans of their heritage.

“I have two kids who don’t want to learn Chinese or go to Chinese school,” she lamented.

Liu has been the U.S. cheerleader for her sister since Kuo’s tour of the West Coast in 1989.

“My father spent a lot of energy on her; that’s why she’s so successful,” Liu said of her sister. “Because of her we [the six siblings] lose a little bit, but on the other hand we gain, too.” She noted that the opening of her business easily drew attention from the local Chinese press because of her relationship to a star.

For Kuo’s 1989 performance at a sold-out Flint Center, Liu distributed dozens of free tickets to the Fremont Union High School District. She wanted to give local students a chance “to appreciate opera, to appreciate the culture, to appreciate the Chinese.”

Kuo’s next U.S. tour is scheduled for 1993.