Founding Ya Yin Ensemble,
Chang Ta-chien Personally Naming It

In May 1977, Professor Yu Ta-kang passed away suddenly, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was very much grieved. On the one hand, she had decided to collaborate with the Cloud Gate Dance Theater to perform "Wang Kuei Jilting Kuei-ying" to commemorate this beloved teacher. On the other hand, she quietly lapsed into protracted meditations, ruminating day and night on how to positively and actively take the first step to realize the expectations of her beloved teacher Yu Ta-kang.

Ten years' guidance. Ten years' tutelage. The expectations that Yu Ta-kang had placed in Kuo Hsiao-chuang were the rejuvenation of Chinese opera, giving it new contents, and uniting the traditional with the modern.

And so, deep in her heart there welled up a sense of responsibility and desire for creativity. She pondered the questions in a trance, her whole body sitting absolutely still and motionless. All of a sudden, Professor Yu seemed to appear in front of her, urging her, encouraging her, bidding her to apply her meticulous wisdom to express her own personal style and re-create a new world for Chinese opera. Returning to reality from her musing, she knew clearly that these were words of encouragement from her beloved teacher. Hence she decided to walk her own path and attempt reforms for Chinese opera.

At this time she was still a student at the University of Chinese Culture. Every day she attended classes punctually, listening to lectures and learning attentively. Most importantly, she was studying theory courses. In terms of practical experience in drama, she was very much a veteran. What she needed most at present was grounding in the theory of drama. In her own mind she was already beginning to make plans for founding her own opera troupe. This "own opera troupe" should belong to the new population, should uphold Professor Yu Ta-kang's ideals all along, with originality, new style, and courage to make new attempts at performing for traditional Chinese opera. She told her parents of this concept, and obtained their agreement and support. At the same time, she paid special visits to Maestro Chang Ta-chien. Ever since returning and settling in Taiwan, this grand master painter of the national treasure class had been very concerned about Chinese opera performances. He was full of praise about Kuo Hsiao-chuang's performing art. This time, Hsiao-chuang called at his Maya Pure Abode, describing to Ta-chien the Lay Buddhist her motive and ideas of founding an opera troupe and modestly seeking his advice. Having listened to her, Chang Ta-chien was very supportive, and said to her:

"Do you want to be an actress or an artist? An actress is assigned a role and acts the role accordingly; an artist, however, creates a role. Everything is focused on innovative expression."

These words were permanently engraved in Kuo Hsiao-chuang's heart. Of course she would aspire to be an artist. Chang Ta-chien was very pleased. He named her opera troupe "Ya Yin Ensemble" and personally wrote the name in Chinese calligraphy.

After naming it, Chang Ta-chien explained to her: From now on, the responsibility for innovation in Chinese opera would be as-"semble"-d by "Hsiao"-chuang (The word "Ensemble" in Chinese was literally "Hsiao Assembly"), gathering people with common goals to accomplish together. Maestro Ta-chien and his son Chang Pao-lo also hand painted patterns from the Tun Huang caves to make the curtains for Ya Yin Ensemble's stage, asking Shen Wei-chuang the Hong Kong writer to have it embroidered and made in Hong Kong by special appointment. This was a great encouragement to Kuo Hsiao-chuang, and also a significant special feature at Ya Yin Ensemble's performances.

Henceforth, she studied and discussed together with her classmates every day, and went to various higher education institutions to hold seminars and talks. From the questions raised by these young students, she gained a deep understanding of young people's views and hopes on Chinese opera. Kuo Hsiao-chuang felt that she herself was one of the young students. Her opera troupe in future would of course belong to the young people. If Chinese opera art was to pass on its heritage, it would have to attract young people to join the ranks of audiences, and make them the main stay in promoting the development of Chinese opera.

Finally, on March 29, 1979 the meaningful Youth Festival day, she announced the formal inception of 'Ya Yin Ensemble' as a private opera troupe, and resolved that the opera chosen for the gala performance would be "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien".

"The White Snake and Hsu Hsien" was a folk tale which was widely known. In the Peking opera "The White Snakeˇ¦s Legend", performance of the whole play would combine performing techniques of the Kun singing style, the Chin singing style, the Anhuei tune, the bang tzu and the Han tune etc. And the role of Pai Su-cheng the white snake, though primarily a Ching I, in performing the whole play, since she would be required to do gestures in "Touring the Lake", to do martial arts in "Stealing the Herb", and to excel in singing in "The Severed Bridge", "Closing the Bowl" and "Paying Tribute at the Tower", hence seldom could one actress play if from beginning to end. Often it was cast for two different actresses. Although there were instances when one actress played the whole opera, there would be modifications or adjustments to the plot or the sequence of scenes in accordance with the specialty of this actress. This was because it would be a basically difficult task for an actress to combine Hua Tan, Wu Tan and Ching I in one and to put up an above average performance. So part of the scenes would be changed to enhance her performance of what she was good at and give a good impression to the audience. This was what had been done usually in the past. It could be seen therefore that "The White Snake" was a really demanding act.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang was particularly fond of "The Legend of the White Snake". Professor Yu Ta-kang had even revised the libretto for "Touring the Lake" for her. She loved the role of the White Snake obsessively because of Pai Su-cheng's obsessive and persistent love, to the extent of having no fear of giving up her life, or of one hurdle after another in front of her. This moved Hsiao-chuang very much. She believed she could interpret even more in depth and delicately this "obstinate, soulful love".

And the most important task was writing the script. She invited her teacher Yang Hsiang-shih, teacher at the University of Chinese Culture, Chinese Opera Section. At the same time, she also consulted and discussed with teachers Liang Hsiu-chuan and Chu Shao-lung. To emphasize Pai Su-cheng's love for Hsu Hsien, fearing no danger or difficulty just to rescue him, she decided to strengthen the scene of "Stealing the Divine Herb". This was an unprecedented move. Not only did she add to the highly difficult actions surrounded by heavenly generals and soldiers, with her sword lost and wounded, she still advanced through all the danger rather than running away, disregarding her own safety, just bent on obtaining the divine herb to save her lover; but she also added high pitch singing besides actions. When the libretto for this scene was completed, Hsiao-chuang read through it and her excitement was shown on her face, she was full of confidence about performing this opera.

Also in the scene of "Closing the Bowl", in order to strengthen the atmosphere, besides the main characters of the Monk Fa Hai and Wei Tuo, the heavenly general, the battle array of heavenly generals and soldiers was added to illustrate the irresistible and mighty force of the heavens. By contrast, the White Snake and Hsu Hsien were weak and helpless, but brave and intrepid, demonstrating the loyal and unchanging love steeled by eternal true feelings. The contrasting scenes expressed a touching situation. Later, although the couple were separated under the act of violence of heavenly troops, the tragic and melancholy scene that moved one to tears echoed for a long time in the theater.

Discussions and writing of the script went on day and night. Under the guidance of teacher Liang Hsiu-chuan, Hsiao-chuang had made particular efforts to diligently learn the delicate body movements, to figure out the emotions and perform the singing and dancing. This was also the first time when she acted as producer and director as well. She was also contemplating that this time she was resolved to move Chinese opera from the traditional stage into the modern theater. So she rented the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and specially invited celebrated stage designer Nieh Kuang-yen to be in charge of sets and lighting. She narrated to him the scientific production techniques of movie and TV, how these were to be introduced in the performance of traditional Chinese opera to achieve a harmony which would not damage the image of beauty of Chinese opera, but could also reflect the moderization of Chinese opera. Upon understanding this innovative spirit of Kuo Hsiao-chuang's, Nieh Kuang-yen took pains to design for "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien" unprecedentedly, giving new concepts to a traditional Chinese art.

The new attempts of Ya Yin Ensemble also included the music. Civil scenes music was led and composed by Chu Shao-lung the celebrated musician, and martial scenes music was led by Hou Yu-tzung the Drummer King.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang herself being director and leading actress was the vital key of the whole opera. She invited Tsao Fu-yung to play Hsu Hsien, Ma Chia-ling to play Green Snake the maid, Wu Chien-hung to play the Little Monk. The cast was strong, all being the top choice of the time. During rehearsals, she was already deeply impressed with the "scene-ism" of movie and TV performing, and also inspected and got to know the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall Theater. To fit in with facilities of modern theater and put into practice the concept of "visual beauty of the scene", she paid special emphasis to beauty of the visual scene, picture composition and beauty of the stage grandeur, in terms of atmosphere, emotions, movements and singing.

As regards the playing of the part of the White Snake, she concentrated on meticulous acting with flawless artistry in expressing emotions. The romantic interests of touring the lake and borrowing the umbrella, the action sequence of revealing her real form after drinking, the wriggly performance of turning the body and sucking in the stomach, showing fully the struggle between human and snake natures; the martial art actions of stealing the divine herb, evolving and incorporating dance actions, showing the beauty of body and limb lines; and the singing at the severed bridge, voicing in sorrow a real and precious love. Kuo Hsiao-chuang outlined one key point of playing for every scene, and for each "key point of playing" she would use her intelligence to ponder and design, including comprehension of the story line, to the charactersˇ¦ psychological conditions, body and limb movements, gestures and style of paces, eye and facial expressions, stage positions and movements, singing styles and music, matching of lighting, etc. She would have a series of overall design, to achieve the objective of creativity in a revolutionized performance, creating opportunities of rebirth for Chinese opera.

The gala performance of Ya Yin Ensemble's very first opera "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien" received enthusiastic feedback and was most successful. It meant that reform in Chinese opera had received the community's support. This greatly heartened Ya Yin and Hsiao-chuang, and enabled Ya Yin, the troupe of reform and innovation, to take its first step successfully and firmly establish the foundation for its future development.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang was very satisfied with the effects of this innovative performance. The whole Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall was packed, with tickets for standing room being sold. And critics gave positive reviews in long articles. The excitement and joy in her heart were hard to still for a long time. She had founded Ya Yin and reformed Chinese opera. In her long journey of studying hard, brewing, fermenting and maturing her thoughts, she was very clear where the direction for reforming Chinese opera lay, and how the new path for the future development of Chinese opera should be trodden. She already had a complete set of plans in her mind. The performance of Ya Yin at present was only taking the first step in this set of reform plans of hers. After its success, she would follow through and take a second step, a third step, and so on. Ya Yin Ensemble enabled her to hoist the flag of Chinese opera reform and she was advancing with flying colors.