Chinese Opera Enjoys Rebirth
Singer Makes a Musical Union

A mischevious twinkle in her eye, Taiwanese opera star Kuo Hsiao Chuang raised her cup in a toast of sorts that amused the Chinese and Taiwanese dignitaries at her banquet table.

“She said she’s married to the Chinese Opera, so no man cat get close to her,” a representative from the Chinese consulate’s tourist office translated for an observer.

Kuo, who is the rough equivalent of a rock star in Taiwan and her hometown of Taipei, enjoyed some welcome anonymity before and after a packed reception in her honor Saturday night in a Chinatown restaurant.

Her ensemble will be touring the West Coast and Hawaii next month to introduce the newly-revived Chinese Opera’s centuries-old stories to America.

Her “marriage” to the arts has resulted in a rebirth of the Chinese Opera in Taiwan, a restructuring of the old plays and ways of performing them to capture the young audience.

Her work with the Graceful Melody Ensemble, which first met with suspicion from traditionalists, has resulted in a cleaner and more understandable performance, she said.

It has also resulted in the Graceful Melody Research Center of Drama and the Fine Arts. In addition to being producer, director and leading lady for her productions, she said she teaches at the center and oversees research there.

The old Chinese Operas were performed in a very different way before Kuo formed the ensemble in 1979, and Kuo, now 37, has studied and performed the traditional operas since age 7.

A four-piece band would be on the stage in the old operas, and people usually walk around, talk and eat in the old theatres. The storyline is repeated in the old style, because people in the audience miss so much of the story. There is little respect for the actors, Kuo said.

In traditional performances, “everything was noisy,” she said.

The four traditional instruments are still there, but the clanging sounds have been replaced in her theatre with a classical Chinese orchestra, which plays from an orchestra pit in tones soft enough that words may be heard over the music.

There is no talking, eating or milling around during Kuo’s performances, which will be in the Bay Area Oct. 25 at the Flint Center in Cupertino as part of a tour through California, Washington and Hawaii.

She will travel with a troupe of 65, but her company has more than 100 people involved in putting on the lavishly-costumed operas.

Kuo said there is wider acceptance of her style of opera now, but people had to get used to the changes. Female characters, for instance, are played by men in traditional operas, and the costumes are not as chic as those worn by Kuo and her troupe.

The stories she performs are as old as the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368 and ended in 1644. But young audiences find that the old stories have relevance to their world, she said.

“It doesn’t matter how fast technology changes in the 20th Century. People are still the same, and have the same feelings and emotions," Kuo said.