Opera that’s full of action
Streamlined version really sings
【TODAY/Lois Taylor】

The trouble with Chinese opera used to be that the acting was stiff, the costumes were the same in every production and the performances lasted longer than some marriages. It was perfectly good form to sleep, eat a hot lunch or wander in and out of the theater during a play.

Then came the Ya Yin Ensemble from Taiwan, established in 1979 by Kuo Hsiao-Chuang, who realized audiences were growing older and older. Young people were avoiding Chinese opera to the same extent that Western youth stay away from Wagner and Verdi.

Kuo’s approach was to cut the traditional repetition of dialogue where things were said five times. Story lines were strengthened so plots actually made sense. Music and dancing were pulled together to advance the plot rather than confuse.

The Ya Yin Ensemble will make its Hawaii debut Saturday, with the company of 65 actors and musicians presenting “The Gall of the Peacock,” a 14th-century melodrama. Kuo was in town recently to tour the theater, traveling with her sister and interpreter, Sabrina Liu.

In a move that would shock Western opera-goers, Kuo kept the plot and threw out the music of “Peacock.” She hired a composer to provide a new score, which to the uninitiated seems like dumping Puccini’s “One Fine Day” from “Madame Butterfly” and hiring somebody to write “Have a Nice Day.” But in Chinese opera, plot draws audiences.

The result is a two-and-a-half-hour production with sold-out performances attracting younger audiences as well as those who support traditional opera. The company has performed in Southeast Asia and Europe, and is now on its first tour of the United States. The appearance here follows performances in Los Angeles and Seattle.

The complicated plot involves an arranged marriage between Princess Ah Kai and her father’s commanding general, a jealous enemy, a plot to kill the general, a murder and a suicide. The opera is presented in Mandarin. Honolulu audiences, Kuo said, will have an English translation of the dialogue as well as the Chinese characters projected on the proscenium arch above the stage. This is the same technology used by the Hawaii Opera Theater with French, Italian or German operas.

Kuo’s biography begins in 1959 when she entered the Taiwan Air Force Opera School, 10 years after her father had come from mainland China with Chiang Kai-shek. “I was 7 years old,” she said through the interpreter.

“It was very hard. We would get up at 5:30 every morning and have voice lessons and exercises before breakfast. Then classes in singing and theater began at 9 a.m. We worked all day. After dinner, we had our academic classes.”

This seems strenuous for a 7-year-old, but Kuo said she remained at the school until she graduated six years later. At 14, she joined the Air Force Youth Opera Troupe and was playing adult roles. This, Kuo explained, was very difficult because her characters needed to portray love, betrayal and jealousy, all emotions far beyond her personal adolescent experience. At 18 she was starring in Chinese operas on television. In 1973, she made her first trip to the United States, and performed at Kennedy Center, as well as in New York and Chicago.

She spent the next six years appearing with the troupe all over Asia, and in 1979 established the Ya Yin Ensemble and starred in its first production, “The White Snake.” Because Kuo studied martial arts at the Air Force school, she incorporates kung fu movements into her acting.

Kuo also uses kung fu as a daily exercise program to keep in shape for the teenage roles she must play at the beginning of many operas. Beyond that, she had little to say about her personal life. She has never married, “I am married to Chinese opera,” and vacations a maximum of three weeks a year, always abroad. She prefers London and New York because of the theater and dance productions, and has studied dance movement at the Juilliard School.

She wants Honolulu to be prepared for something exotic. Chinese opera is like nothing else, with its fusion of music, dance, gymnastic battle scenes, poetic drama and mime. In two and a half hours, the 65 members of Ya Yin Ensemble will transport audiences to 13th century China, but don’t expect it to sound like Stephen Sondheim.