Ya Yin Ensemble streamlines ancient Chinese operas
【Seattle PI/R.M. Campbell】

Opera is an ancient art form in China, combining history and fiction, music and dance.

It is little understood in the West, and perhaps not so much anymore in the East because so many old traditions have been lost or discarded.

The Chinese regarded music as an image of the universe, expressing “the accord of heaven and earth.” The purpose of opera was not to please the senses but to convey eternal truths and help prepare man to receive those truths. To attempt to appreciate the art simply as music misses the point, Chinese scholars are fond of pointing out.

Chinese opera was popularized during the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, and became the principal form of entertainment. However, in more recent years it has lost a good share of its appeal because of its length and repetitive nature.

Thus, the beginning a decade ago of the Ya Yin Ensemble, which is on its first American tour and makes its Seattle debut tonight at the Paramount Theater, a benefit for the University of Washington School of Music scholarship fund.

The aim of company founder and its principal singer, Kuo Hsiao-chuang, was to repopularize Chinese opera in Taiwan where she lives, and abroad as well.

She wanted to quicken the pace of opera, she said through an interpreter, and make it seem less old-fashioned, while keeping its inherent musical and dramatic strengths.

“Chinese opera can be very long,” she said. “Sometimes two days. We are trying to condense the plot and are modifying costumes and makeup.”

The repetitive patterns in the dialogue and singing lines, similar to Baroque opera, have been eliminated. Scattered scenes are consolidated. Highly stylized movement has been altered in order to convey more natural movement that reflects contemporary life.

Kuo is well-equipped to undergo such work. The attractive singer began training in Chinese opera as a child and has sung with a number Chinese ensembles. She studied at The Juilliard School in New York on a scholarship from the Asian Cultural Foundation. Her resume of stage and film appearances in the East and West runs for several pages.

The basic Chinese opera repertory consists of about 200 operas from the Qing dynasty, she said, although the texts often stretch back much farther than that. From that essential reservoir, Ya Yin commissions one refurbished opera a year.

Kuo has changed the traditional orchestra somewhat, adding Chinese instruments, such as the ching hu (high-tone violin) and the er hu (low-tone violin).

Traditional Chinese vocal production, more nasal than the West, has not been changed, she said.

Her company tours a fair amount, she said, in the Far East, as well as Europe. Even though Kuo has performed in the United States herself, her company never has. Its Seattle performance is sponsored by the UW School of Music and the Coordination Council of North American Affairs, which represents the government of Taiwan in the United States.

While the story of “The Ah-Kai, Princess” being performed at the Paramount dates to the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368), she said, the actual play was written in the 1930’s.

“There is lots of intrigue,” She said. “It is perfect for opera.”