Ya Yin's Direction of Innovation and its Effects

The emergence of Ya Yin Ensemble in the 1980s had brought Chinese opera into a new era of metamorphosis, and created a new popular culture.

Ya Yin's concept of innovation came from Kuo Hsiao-chuang's accumulated experience, what she had learned from her studies, and her thinking all put together. She had lived in the Chinese opera tradition from her childhood. She had lived on the archaic stage, watching the public in the auditorium dwindling gradually with each day. Where was Chinese opera's future? Where should it go and what direction to follow? These had been the young Kuo Hsiao-chuang's puzzlement.

The founding of Ya Yin and the goals of reform and innovation for Ya Yin were the realization of her ideals. She wished to remodel Chinese opera and laid down plans and strategies for Ya Yin to implement step by step. This was Kuo Hsiao-chuang's desire, and this was Ya Yin's characteristic and direction for striving.

Ya Yin's reform and innovation directions might be described in several parts.

1. Promoting Chinese opera's juvenization

This is the answer found by the young Kuo Hsiao-chuang out of her puzzlement. And so Ya Yin promoted it in full force. She went into school compounds, discussing traditional culture and Chinese opera art with the students. She became a solemn evangelist of Chinese opera, running around touring the institutions of higher learning one after another. She gave lectures, talks, demonstrations. That was spreading the gospel: spreading the gospel of reform and innovation for Chinese opera. She wanted participation and support from the young. Chinese opera needed young audiences and assistance.

She also organized activities such as everybody sings Chinese opera, Chinese opera study camp for youths and adolescents, etc. Chinese opera was not a closed temple. It could not merely be a leisure entertainment for the old people. Chinese opera was a culture belonging to the whole population, and it could be for the young people. It was looking forward to the younger population to enliven and revitalize it.

In every Ya Yin show, looking down from the stage, the head upon head in the auditorium, sitting or even standing, were mostly young people brimming with vitality. These young and enthusiastic lives had filled the empty places in traditional Chinese opera theaters, making the theaters emit airs of unmatched youth. Chinese opera needed to be new, to be young. This was the continuation of life.

2. Promoting Chinese opera's sense of the time

Traditional Chinese opera operated within a frame of fixed schools. With the change of times, the progress of society and the development of technology, all these had powerful impact on human living. Hence social property and human thinking had shown a new face. But for Chinese opera this was a serious trial. Would Chinese opera become "Chinese antique"? Would it happen one day that people could only watch a Chinese opera show when they visited the National Palace Museum, because it had become an item of the antique collection in the old Palace? Some "old diehards" of Chinese opera once declared that Peking opera should become just like "Noh Drama" of Japan, or even Ancient Greek Tragedies. Should it follow such a narrow path? This was something worth the community's reflection.

Ya Yin would not think so. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was positive and worldly wise. She always felt that Chinese opera shows were closely linked with the time and society. In her opinion, the corruption of social climate was because there were too few Chinese opera goers, people had not yet accepted the education of morals and ethics in Chinese opera, and the uplifting influence of character and integrity in Chinese opera. She could not allow Chinese opera to become antiques in the old Palace. She wanted Chinese opera to undergo a face lift and became the new culture of the age.

She concentrated her efforts on script innovation, cutting out superfluous interlude scenes, strengthening the logic of plots, accelerated the tempo of progress, and established the post of director responsible for commanding the overall acting co-ordination, making stage art a perfect unity. Kuo Hsiao-chuang made use of the brisk style in movies and on television. She gave delicate treatment to the depiction of human feelings, coupled with modern stage facilities, to express the pulse of contemporary society. From "Madam Han", "Peacock Gall Bladder", "Questioning Heaven" to "Return to Yueh", the performance of the drama all gave a new sense of the time.

3. Promoting Chinese Opera・s International Outlook

When Ya Yin's show moved from the National Army's Cultural Activities Center to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and National Theater, this symbolized the move from traditional theater to modern theater. Ya Yin's special characteristics and intention of juvenization, sense of the time and international outlook had fully manifested themselves.

On the stage of the modern theater, depth and breadth formed a composition of golden ratio, suitable for visual comfort and enjoyment of the contemporary people. Besides, the adding of a complete set of computerized music effect facilities plus lighting effect facilities, the audio visual atmosphere of the whole theater was brought into a situation of excellence. And so the modern audience's appreciation of art was totally fascinated in a happy marriage of the audio-visual and the mind.

With such an intention for Ya Yin, Kuo Hsiao-chuang at Juilliard and Broadway was feeling even more truly intimate. She wanted to place Chinese opera on the modern stage, to make use of technology to highlight that classical beauty of Chinese opera, to make Chinese opera become an international art form, the drama of the whole mankind.

To suit the modern stage, she had to enhance the realistic parts, using the language of drama to bridge the audience・s "generation gap" or "language barrier". In simple terms, that was strengthening modern people's understanding. For example, set design, light projections and variations, etc, were all for the communication and understanding between the creative artist and the audience, as well as to simulate the scene of the performance to strengthen the characters' psychological reliance during performance, and of course also for the aesthetics of unity of art.

In terms of imagery, this was the essence of the Chinese opera tradition. Through the characters' performance in gestures, walking paces, eye expressions and body movements, every lifting, every walk, every turn and every movement could display a delicate and tender feeling that was touching. Kuo Hsiao-chuang made use of the technological facilities of the modern theater to strengthen light/shadow and color, even the musical background, to set off the beauty of the characters' vivid performance.

Ya Yin strove for the reform and innovation of Chinese opera in these three directions. The innovative work it produced did form the special characteristics of Ya Yin.

At the same time while innovating in these 3 directions, Ya Yin also made an effort in the reorganization and performing of traditional operas. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was in fact very traditional, very classical. In particular, her conservation in thinking and behavior very much looked like a Chinese opera character coming into modern living. Besides the annual grand opera show of Ya Yin's, she would also stage a representative old opera, such as Hua Mu-lan, Eighth Sister Yang, Matchmaker Red Maid, Third Sister You, etc., Tradition was the root. She would not uproot for the sake of reform. She would rather trim the branches and leaves for the sake of reform, to make the foliage greener and the twigs more abundant, the tree bigger and the bole rounder, revealing more effectively its spirit and air.

From the day of Ya Yin's founding, to every show it staged, it could be said that the tasks were many, the scale was large, and the workers, besides a group of enthusiastic volunteers, were mainly Kuo Hsiao-chuang's entire familyd. Old Mr Kuo Chin-ho, who was respectfully called "Old Captain" by members of the troupe, shouldered everything big of small, from gathering information to newspaper clipping. Whenever a show was on, he could be seen almost anytime, anywhere. Mother Kuo took care of her daughter's living and meals, looking after her. The tender loving care of a mother had a "morale boosting" effect on Kuo Hsiao-chuang. Her elder sister was the manager, overseeing finances and ticketing. Her younger brother was responsible for administrative liaison. The youngest brother and sister and sister-in-law all had their assigned duties: PR, cultural promotion, general services, purchasing. The entire family acted as her logistic support team without complaints. This enabled Kuo Hsiao-chuang to concentrate on artistic performing with no worries behind. The family・s support and help were her strongest main stay.

While "Learning" in the USA, she was deeply impressed by the community's concern for cultural building. The government interfered very little. The whole thing was sponsored and promoted by the large corporations, making the cultural activities of the American society vibrant, energetic and diversified. After returning home, planning the show "Madam Han", she decided to copy the American model, inviting entrepreneurs in Taiwan to give sponsorship and enable Ya Yin to have more ample funding, to make productions more rigorous and perfect. In the past she had felt uneasy about accepting corporate support for shows. So Kuo Hsiao-chuang had all the while been rejecting this sponsorship. But in America, people felt that culture belonged to the public community, and that everybody should share and contribute either money or effort, so as to popularize and elevate culture! This concept greatly moved Kuo Hsiao-chuang. So after coming back she changed her attitude. She felt that Ya Yin belonged to the whole community and needed everybody to care and assist altogether.

Just at that time, Hung Chin-li the entrepreneuress also gave her a lot of inspiration in management concept. Every time Ya Yin staged a show, this "Eternal Sister Hung" as Kuo Hsiao-chuang called her would ardently offer advice on what to develop and what to remove. From her going to America for studies to her returning home to perform, it was Sister Hung who kept encouraging and bidding her repeatedly, "Come back quickly after completing your studies. Time changes everything." She kept this advice in mind, and gradually realized what it meant. So during her year in New York she used every day as if it were 2 days, studying quickly, so as to come back quickly.

After coming back, she had plenty of opportunities to have long chats with and consult Sister Hung. This had conceptual influence on the setting up of Ya Yin's management system and operations. Kuo Hsiao-chuang turned "family support" into "corporatized operation" with planning, systems and ideals in order to develop Ya Yin's business.

And so, the Ya Yin Theater Art Research Center was established. The Kuo Hsiao-chuang Cultural Enterprise Inc. was set up. Audio and video tapes of Ya Yin's shows were openly on sale. "Madam Han", "Matchmaker Red Maid", "Liu Lan-chih and Chao Chung-ching" and "Romance of Rebirth" had in turn received the Golden Tripod Awards for discs of the year organized by the News Bureau. She also found time as far as possible to take part in various community and public service activities. She even made special trips to Hong Kong to take part in the charity show of the Hong Kong Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.

In the course of Ya Yin's development, Mr and Mrs Wang Ti-wu, founder of the United Daily News, had always given Kuo Hsiao-chuang support and encouragement. As early as the show "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien", they were among the audience and commended the whole show's atmosphere and effect. So at the 30th Anniversary of the United Daily News soon afterward, Ya Yin was specially invited to stage the same show. A large carpet was presented to Ya Yin as a gift, made to measure according to the venue at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. This was because the Wang couple had earlier noticed Ya Yin was performing on bare boards, and were worried that actors might easily get hurt in their movements. So in this anniversary show they presented this carpet. Wang Ti-wu・s observant care made Kuo Hsiao-chuang feel most heart warming. Talking about it many years later, she still remembered it well. Ever since she had become a young friend of the old couple. Wang Hsiao-lan the publisher of the People・s Livelihood Daily also became good friends with her. They often talked about drama, art, ideals and Ya Yin. She would invariably feel encouragement and strength from this friendship.

Ya Yin was growing. Ya Yin received recognition and help from many people who loved and cared for her. Of course, for Ya Yin herself, she had to try harder and seek improvement, so as not to let down everybody's expectations. Hence Ya Yin had to show her special character distinct from others. Take for example her promotion: poster design, exquisitely published pamphlets, press conferences, television interviews and demonstrations of excerpts, school talks and demonstration displays, photographs that matched 2-dimensional media, and recording and production of promotional tapes for broadcast, etc., all were designed after discussions, went through special packaging, and totally different than Chinese opera troupes' advertising of shows in the past. For the Chinese opera circle, this was a breakthrough and an innovation.

Precisely because she spared no effort in design and packaging, hence Ya Yin's every reform and innovation, such as the participation of Chinese orchestra, making the music array grander; the installation of stage sets that opened people's eyes; gorgeous newly-tailored costumes, enhancing the feelings of colors; design of lighting variations that gave the stage more feelings of strata; all these innovations were especially introduced through well-planned packaging and promotion, to become the focus of public attention. Every time before the show, people could understand in detail the special characteristics of this show. Coupled with the united purpose of Ya Yin's personnel from top to bottom, the serious attitude of focused production had basically won the public's recognition and praise.

In fact, Ya Yin's most crucial innovation lay in changing the "Listening to opera" habit of traditional opera into "composite audio visual" shows, emphasizing the visual sense of taste in "watching opera". Hence in traditional Chinese opera in the past, the emphasis was on songs, on singing, on simulated expressions. Now Ya Yin's emphasis was on drama, on arranging new vocal scores, on arranging movements, and on designing the total stage composition. Some of these key points were neglected in the past (such as drama script writing), and some were what had to be stressed nowadays (such as new vocal styles, stage compositions etc.) Fundamentally, Ya Yin's direction of endeavor was for the audience, for the modern audience.

The reasons that Ya Yin rose so quickly and at once attracted widespread reaction are many. Besides subjective factors, objective circumstances and conditions were also very important. That was just after the severance of diplomatic relations with the USA. Taiwan was rife with an atmosphere of "self-respect and self-strengthening". Having relied on the USA for many years in international relations, losing such a strong helper at that time called for standing on one's own feet and innovation. At that time an "Oriental Fever" was also on the rise in the international community. There appeared to be great interest in research and investigation in Chinese culture. Ya Yin under such circumstances was going with the contemporary trend in her quest for innovation, her traditional Chinese style and her classical Chinese operatic art, and marching forward. Since the late 1970s, this giant wave of reform in spiritual culture met the community's demand for innovations in human living. Artistic groups of the time, such as the Cloud Gate Dance Troupe, the Lan Ling Theater and the Ya Yin Ensemble, were all in between traditional and modern, classical and avant garde, striving for nostalgia and innovation, and hence resonating with the masses.

Amidst the resonance of the masses, Kuo Hsiao-chuang went a step further, and cultivated the singing of Chinese opera into a popular culture. The young people then went for pop music, Hollywood movies, tattered jeans, existentialist literature, and Kuo Hsiao-chuang's Chinese opera. They put on T-shirts with Ya Yin printed on them, and chatted about Ya Yin and Kuo Hsiao-chuang. This had become a vogue, a new trend.

The impact of the risen Ya Yin was tremendous. In terms of Chinese opera, it was a physical rebirth. Whether it was the form of performing, performing techniques, production methods or set design, there was a set of new standards, elevating Chinese opera from folk opera singing to the position of cultural activity for the whole population, and even gradually marching toward the path of internationalization.

This trend-setting courage and perseverance for innovation of Ya Yin's had a catalytic effect on many new opera groups that later took turns to emerge in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Especially Kuo Hsiao-chuang's persistence and adherence to ideals had engendered an exemplary influence and effect on many later performing groups that advocated new drama and new style. The formation of contemporary legend theater and experimental shows all followed in the footsteps of Ya Yin. Afterwards, many young people came together out of interest and set up many experimental theaters, engaging in innovative, psychological and society reflecting shows. Whether in realistic or surrealist expressions, the zealous creativity of these youngsters and their efforts in reforming tradition were all influenced by the Ya Yin spirit. In that age of curfews in Taiwan, Ya Yin established an innovative flag of new culture of the age.

Ya Yin's innovative performance also gave rise to a trend in the Peking opera circle on the mainland. As early as the late 1950s, with "White Haired Girl", reform of mainland Peking opera had already displayed a concrete image. "The Red Lantern", "Surprise Attack of the White Tiger Battalion", "Sparks of the Reed Marshes", to the famous "Red Women・s Army", these so-called Yan Pan Shi (Model Plays) had added cloth scenery, orchestral accompaniment and contemporary costumes for the characters during performance. Even though it was still the traditional Peking operatic singing, acting, reciting and martial arts, many imagery movements could not be expressed because of the contemporary costume. The audience found it incongruous. From the angle of innovation of traditional Chinese opera, changing from period costume to contemporary costume was indeed too great a change. The background, plot, language, movements, facial expressions, all had to follow and change. This was obviously separating from the mother body of Peking opera. It was said that these Model Plays were launched by Chiang Ching, and also declined and fell with the fall of the "Gang of Four".

Peking opera on the mainland had also attempted innovation many times for the sake of future development, but could not walk out from the shadow of tradition. Some regional operas added sets of machine-operated stage scenery of the 1930s movies, in a quest for innovation and change. This looked like a gadget, but wandering even further from the artistic realm. Just after Ya Yin distributed video tapes, mainland Peking opera troupes knew about Ya Yin from the tapes, and knew about the mode of rebirth for Chinese opera. Kuo Hsiao-chuang had become the topic of conversation for people in the Peking opera field across the Strait.

Mei Lan-fang's daughter Mei Pao-yueh, celebrated male lead Yeh Shao-lan, Master of the Kun Opera Yu Chen-fei and his wife Li Chang-hua all found Ya Yin's innovative work well done. It did not make too much drastic changes as the Model Plays. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was applying technological facilities to Peking opera, and at the same time enriched expressions of body movements, and added folk instrument music. All these could be taken as examples for reference by Peking opera on the mainland. The famous performing artist Liu Chang-yu who was called "Mainland's Kuo Hsiao-chuang" by the Hong Kong people, a celebrity who is currently Director of the Central Peking Opera Theater, was even more appreciative of Kuo Hsiao-chuang. She praised Ya Yin's innovation time and again, and she herself had all the time explored toward new paths. Having watched Ya Yin's shows, she doubtlessly received great encouragement and would sound a brand new horn for the innovation of Chinese opera in the mainland.

Ya Yin's Refined Music lingered in the air. Her influence was long lasting and gradually wide spreading.