Character Creation and "Madam Han"

Kuo Hsiao-chuang made a special trip to America to learn. She stayed a year in New York. Though she was pressed for time, she had a rich harvest. Juilliard, Broadway, Off Broadway, New York Library, Manhattan and Soho, all had given her plenty of gains, plenty of inspirations, and plenty of thoughts. When her trip came to an end and she was packing up for going home, her baggage was already filled with her new viewpoints and new information on dramatic performances.

After this year, when she was back home, what new work should she present to her audience? In New York, she had watched the Broadway musical "Evita" and was deeply moved. She had seen it 6 times in a row. The entire story, characters and stage performance had taken root in her mind. And so, she thought of the Chinese heroine Liang Hung-yu. She read the script written by Professor Meng Yao in her New York apartment deep into the night. Sometimes, at coffee shops, she kept leafing through it to the accompaniment of afternoon tea music, meditating on how after returning home she would use a new format to present her new work. She fully understood in her mind that after returning home, Ya Yin's resumed performance would be her report card for this study tour in America. At the thought of this, anxiety and excitement welled up in her heart altogether and she tossed about in bed, unable to sleep all night.

In her last 2 months in New York, she was studying, thinking, arranging what she had learned and planning for the future all at the same time. She summed up her performing experiences in Chinese opera, movie and television. Professor Yu Ta-kang's innovative ideas about literary cultivation and drama, Maestro Chang Ta-Chien's expositions on artistic creation and elevation of artistic conception, Juilliard School's Western performing skills, Broadway's modern stage, New York's popular art and fashionable life. Strolling in their midset, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was absorbing it all deeply, blending it all into driving force and direction for her reform of Chinese opera. She seemed to be adjusting the focus. She could clearly see the subject view she wanted to see. After returning home, she would lead Ya Yin and set out again.

She commenced preparation work for "Liang Hung-yu". The first step for Ya Yin's setting out again was stage renovation. She admired and longed for Broadway's modernized stage, longing for being able to perform Chinese stage and for being able to perform Chinese opera on a modernized grand stage. It was said that when Mei Lan-fang first visited America years ago to perform "Feng River Bend", because the modern stage was too large and he was not used to performing on it, he had it partitioned into a smaller space to suit traditional Chinese opera performing. In this year spent in New York, Kuo Hsiao-chuang had fully realized how in Western theater they made full use of the spaciousness of the modern stage and the full set of facilities to create atmosphere and satisfy modern audience's expectations of audio visual feelings.

So she made a breakthrough move. She invited earnestly the Japanese stage designer Toru Shimagawa and lighting designer Hisaaki Sato to take up set design for Liang Hung-yu and help Nieh Kuang-yen's lighting design. These two young artistic workers full of creative ideas and talent held design jobs at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Shimagawa felt great admiration for, and had great interest in, Kuo Hsiao-chuang's daring in reposing the heavy responsibility of traditional Chinese drama to be completed by a foreigner engaged in Western theater stage work. So he made it a point to watch the video tapes of several of her operas, and made a special trip to Taiwan together with Sato to observe in detail the stage of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, making a lot of notes. They also visited the Palace Museum to see Sung Dynasty calligraphy, paintings and antiques, so as to understand the background period of the opera and express it fully.

After graduating from Waseda University, Shimagawa went to the University of South California in the USA to major in stage design practice, and secured an American license for stage designer. Kuo Hsiao-chuang wished to capitalize on his professional experience in modern stage design and get totally free from the burden and restrictions of traditional Chinese opera theater. Besides, Shimagawa had a background of oriental culture as well as Western stage techniques, plus an individualistic unique style and understanding of Ya Yin's innovative ideas. Under such a premise, Hsiao-chuang looked forward to the set he was to design for "Liang Hung-yu" to open a new window for Chinese opera able to communicate with the international modernized theater stage.

Shimagawa's design made full use of the entire stage at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. First of all, Shimagawa made use of draperies and floral patterns often seen in traditional Japanese theater to make up the main body of the set. Finally the lotus flower pattern was chosen to symbolize Liang Hung-yu's moral character of integrity, being unsoiled though coming out of the mire. At the same time, in front of the back drop separating front and back stage, he added 6 screens, 3 on the left and 3 on the right. The wings on both sides were also each divided into 3, so that the cast would have a total of 6 passageways for entrance and exit, adding 4 more to the 2 doors in the past. This was specially designed for the grand "naval battle" scene. Actors would enter from the many entrances, displaying the imposing grandeur of raging tides of entrances. This changed the monotony of lining up and entering from the single doors at the two wings for "generals and soldiers" in the past. The effect was a grand and imposing scene. This went with the special design of lighting. On the symbolic set, images of the sea, the sky and the battle would show. Traditional oriental culture, coupled with modern audio-visual effects, sets, props and acting, gave the feeling of extra fragrance and pure elegance.

This stage reform aimed at restoring the stage to the performers. Hence from the beginning the set design drawings were the design of the entire stage, not in the form of carving a corner for the musicians. Just as Liang Hung-yu beating the battle drum this time, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was determined to recover "ceded territories". So she arranged for the traditional accompanists and the Chinese orchestra led by Wang Cheng-ping, all 70 odd of them, to sit in the orchestral pit built below the stage. This was another step forward in innovation from the case of Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-tai, where the Chinese orchestra was in the pit but the traditional musicians were still on stage. In respect of this change to the convention, she hastened to discuss and consult with the maestri Hou Yu-tzung and Chu Shao-lung, and made known her own ideas. At first she thought a debate would be required, but unexpectedly, as soon as she said it, these two elders of the traditional musicians indicated their agreement with ease. They both knew that in order to catch up with the times, Chinese opera needed new concepts and new reforms.

Restoring the whole stage to the actors meant an expansion of the space for performing. The design also provided 6 entrance/exit routes. This was unprecedented in Chinese opera, but a rigorous test for the director. Luckily there were a lot of grand scenes of battles in Liang Hung-yu which could be presented fully on this vast stage. So Kuo Hsiao-chuang who was also the director invited Maestro Chao Jung-lai specially to give meticulous design and direction to the cast in respect of body movements in the grand scenes. Action techniques of somersaults, leaping, pouncing and boxing were strengthened; and innovative ideas were borrowed from ballet and martial arts, making body expressions look well-knit and beautiful. The two great scenes of "charging the three strongholds" and "naval battle" mobilized close to a hundred martial artists who dexterously and skillfully acted out the battle scene of group fighting heatedly, showing a grand scene made up of team spirit.

The naval battle scene described the couple General Han Shih-chung and Liang Hung-yu (of the Sung Dynasty) fighting General Wu Shu of Chin. It consisted of 3 scenes on the water, on the boat and on land respectively. It combined the best in body movements, using all sorts of somersaults, tiger leaps, forward pouncing, 16-men group tiger pounce and fling, and the supreme feat of one somersault flying across 12 people, to fully display limb and body movements of high degrees of difficulty. In addition, the 6 entrance and exit doors also had their full effect. Actors kept rushing out in waves in an imposing and awe inspiring manner. Then there were the fierce fighting with swords and spears, the flashing lighting creating the wave rolling effect, and the symphonic Chinese orchestra as the main body of accompaniment, bringing the scene's atmosphere to its highest point. Liang Hung-yu's beating the battle drum in valor to rout the enemy had been rehearsed by Kuo Hsiao-chuang for a long time under the personal instruction of Hou Yu-tzung. She played the Chin Shan drum beating scene most valiantly and imposingly. During rehearsals of this scene, she made her arms numb from the drum beating and often could not raise her arms. When the actual show came, she was beating the drum almost with her life. A thin and frail Kuo Hsiao-chuang could beat out drum rolls that resounded in the heavens, this strength was built up in her opera school foundation, and also owing to her superior tenacity and perseverance.

Liang Hung-yu fullfilled her wish to reform the Chinese opera stage, and made a successful experiment of her idea of performing on a Broadway style modern grand stage. Kuo Hsiao-chuang had always thought, "If we cannot make full use of the special characteristics of a large stage today, we should then abandon the idea of performing on a large stage. Ya Yin is willing to make use of the size of the stage to put up shows that have not been achieved before." After the show, the facts showed that she had indeed achieved her goal and taken a giant step forward for Chinese opera's march to the international stage.

In fact, what was most taxing on Kuo Hsiao-chuang's attention in Liang Hung-yu was the arrangement of plot in the script and the director's creation of characters. Originally "Fighting at Chin Shan" the Peking opera used a martial female lead as main character, and only covered the episode where Liang Hung-yu beat the drum to help boost up morale and led to the defeat of the Chin army at Huang Tien Tang. Ya Yin's Liang Hung-yu was a totally new script. It began from the death in battle of Liang's father, depicting her family's downturn in fortune and her being forced to become a singer in a brothel. National enmity added to family woes. Then she met general Han Shih-chung, they got married and she accompanied him on his campaigns. The whole plot was expanded, telling in detail a complete story of war and love, not just a single episode as in the past. This also revealed Ya Yin's big spending. Under such a full plot, there were not only fierce fighting but also tender love. At Kuo Hsiao-chuang's demand and insistence, Meng Yao the playwright also added a scene of mother and son parting with the latter's death. Before the naval battle, Meng Yao also wrote a scene of "night Meditation", depicting the feeling of anxiety and tension on the eve of the battle. Liang Hung-yu had illusions of her old father and dead son appearing one after the other in sad parting scenes, enhancing the dramatic tension.

When discussing the title of the opera, Liang Hung-yu was formally entitled "Madam Han". Even though the two names meant the same person, giving Liang Hung-yu her husband's family name underscored the couple as one, sharing their lives together, facing the common enemy and fighting side by side. It also gave Liang Hung-yu the simple heroine, after calling her Madam, the additional ideas of being a wife and a mother. This echoed her son's being killed later and the loving mother's grief, fully showing the warmth and sincerity of human love.

As director, Kuo Hsiao-chuang had to attend to the whole show. Most importantly, she had to see to the creation of the characters of the entire cast, and not just two or three main characters. Kuo Hsiao-chuang realized that this relaunching of Ya Yin would have the new performances of playwright and director as a main point. She wanted to change the old look entirely and gave special attention to the overall effect of the whole opera. She made detailed and strict demands across the board on character casting and rehearsing, regardless of their being main characters, supporting roles or extras. The opera assembled a total of over 100 actors, and rehearsal time ran for over half a year. But she executed her directing work seriously without lax. Sometimes she had to explain the scene, the movement positions, give demonstrations in order to enhance the performing, and to co-ordinate the matching between actors and actorsˇ¦ movements, fully expressing a spirit of team work. This giving of herself with all her heart and might was all for the achievements of the overall character creation.

"Madam Han" was indeed no disappointment and once again received warm acclaim. Applause was ceaseless in the theater. Talking about the show went on outside the theater. What a smashing Madam Han! Returning from her study tour in America, Kuo Hsiao-chuang had indeed handed in a satisfactory report card.