Breathing new life into art

Breathing new life into art

Taiwanese actor/director uses hi-tech methods to spin Beijing opera towards young people


Photo: HK Arts Festival

Like most highbrow things, Beijing opera is an acquired taste. Most would go to a performance once, if just for the novelty value, and forget about the painted masks and high-pitched arias.

But it's unlikely you'll erase the 108 Heroes trilogy, produced by Taiwanese director/actor Wu Hsing-kuo, from your memory in a hurry. His modern version of Water Margin, dubbed one of the four greatest Chinese novels in history, brings rock 'n' roll melodies and breakdancing borrowed from the movie Battle of the Year, lavish video projections and even costumes and high heels as crazy as Lady Gaga's to a traditional Beijing opera stage.

Wu, 60, admits not everyone in the Beijing opera world is impressed, but he wowed the Hong Kong crowd when the first instalment hit the 2011 Arts Festival. And this month, he will return to the Academy for Performing Arts with the finale of the trilogy.

"The audience went crazy [during the 2011 show]. They were as excited as they would be at a pop concert," he said, adding that the audience can expect more eye-popping new elements in the upcoming show.

When he was a theatre student, other students called Wu a weirdo because of his obsession with traditional arts. But he changed their minds one day when he invited his guitarist friends to play as he sang Beijing opera. Now he dreams of making Beijing opera more modern to draw a young audience.

To do that with the trilogy, he invited Taiwanese rock star Chau Wakin to write the music and playwright Chang Ta-chuen to shorten and modernise the script.

The main characters in 108 Heroes, Song Jiang and his followers, have much in common with heroic outlaws Robin Hood and his Merry Men. But the Chinese classic, set in the Song dynasty, followed the bandits as they led a peasant uprising against tyranny.

In 108 Heroes III, Song Jiang (played by Wu) asks the emperor for amnesty for his followers, and they all join the imperial army to protect China from foreign invaders. But ministers, jealous of the decorated war hero, plot to take him down.

Except for the few leading characters, the roles are played by students at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

"As the students got to know [the other Taiwanese actors and me] better, they realised we still fiercely defend the spirit and artistry of Beijing opera," Wu said. "Before we modernise an ancient art form, we must be experts in it."

108 Heroes III will be staged from March 14-17 at the HKAPA. Student tickets are HK$70-160 from HK Ticketing

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Breathing new life into art


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