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Mazu's Bodyguards brings dramatic changes to Taiwanese opera

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Mazu's Bodyguards brings dramatic changes to Taiwanese opera

Mazu's Bodyguards brings dramatic changes to Taiwanese opera

The upcoming theatre performance "Mazu's Bodyguards" will show viewers how modern Taiwanese opera can transform traditional opera genre into a surrealistic, multi-media presentation with elements of Taiwanese cultural and historical identity.

"Mazu's Bodyguards" is an adaptation of novelist Jade Y. Chen's autobiographical literary creation. The book about a Taiwanese female lead tracing her family roots has a plot that spans over a hundred years. It has been a bestseller and has won several literary awards since it was published in 2004. Translated into several languages, Chen wrote the script for Mazu's Bodyguards and directed its stage performance. It will be shown at the National Theatre Hall from Friday to Sunday.

The opera stars Sun Tsui-fong, a famous Taiwanese opera actress, in the male lead. Sun's daughter Chen Chao-ting will play the lead actress who falls in love with the character played by Sun.

At a press conference held last month, Chen told reporters that she has been a big fan of Taiwanese opera (also known as gezai opera), since she was a child, and that she was delighted to present a Taiwanese opera that combined methods and techniques from western theatre.

"Taiwanese opera always feels the pulse of time," she said. "For me, the most traditional is the most avant-garde, and the most avant-garde comes from the most traditional."

Chen explained that for her, avant-garde meant that opera singers do not sing to the accompaniment of any Chinese instruments such as ye hu (a two-string Chinese mandolin with a sound box made out of a coconut shell), yue qin (a four-string Chinese mandolin with a full moon-shaped sound box), Chinese flute, or the suo na horn. Instead, their singing is accompanied by western instruments such as the cello, piano, and electric guitar.

This would mean that opera singers could not sing the familiar Taiwanese tunes such as the seven-word rhymed lines; rather, they have to memorize the western tunes and interpret their lines with new singing styles.

"It was like torture during the first weeks of rehearsals," Sun said during the press conference. "I could not sleep for a week after I knew that I had to interpret the drama with totally different singing styles."

"But I took the challenge and tried my best."

Sun and her daughter have gotten used to singing western-style music after learning to observe the changes in lighting and to variations in the music tempo during rehearsals. "It was very difficult since all of the familiar instruments had disappeared."

In Sun's view, Taiwanese opera needs to find a way to thrive in modern theatre, and through Chen's combination of western theatre techniques with traditional Taiwanese opera, actresses may play a vital role in pushing the 100-year-old art form into another era.

Chen's daughter, Chen Chao-ting, said she's less worried about changing to a new style of singing Taiwanese opera, but felt uneasy about playing her mother's lover in the drama. "I felt embarrassed to play the love scenes with my mother," she told reporters. "But the more I practiced with my mother, the more I grew into the role, and I can now play the character with total ease."

In addition to the major change in singing style, director Chen said hundreds of Taiwan's historical pictures will be projected onto the main stage, and that she also used lots of visual montage. "The performance will be a very modern Taiwanese opera."



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