Diva defies traditional stereotypes

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Sun Tsui-feng's opera career began as an accident at an age most thought she had no chance to succeed. They were wrong.

Sun demonstrates to a group of African orphans the movements and essence of performing Gezai Opera, an art form that has taken elements from Liyuan Opera, Beiguan Opera and Peking Opera. [Shanghai Daily]


Women playing the opposite gender in Chinese operas is not news. Mostly they play gentle civilian roles and their performances are characterized by singing and acting. But famous Gezai Opera diva Sun Tsui-feng has a different story. She defies tradition, taking on challenging roles that require martial arts expertise.

On Wednesday, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, the 50-something actress will bring one of her most celebrated outdoor plays, "White Snake," to Shanghai for a performance at Hongkou Football Stadium.

"It is the only show this whole year where I play a woman," the Taiwan native said with a chuckle. "Before I took the role of Madame White Snake, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake compared with the male roles I've done, and I could take it easy. But I soon realized I had deceived myself. It was the hardest experience I ever had to deal with on stage."

During the past years, Sun and others from Taiwan's Ming Hwa Yuan Gezai Opera Company have performed "White Snake" annually in Taipei for the Dragon Boat Festival. It proved to be a big hit with as many as 100,000 spectators coming each year to celebrate the festival.

The play tells the story of young scholar Xu Xian who falls in love with a beautiful woman Bai Suzhen. Xu is unaware that Bai is a white snake who has taken on human form.

On Dragon Boat Festival day, Bai turns back into a snake, frightening her husband to death. To resurrect Xu, Bai steals a magic herb. But such a relationship is forbidden by the Law of Heaven. When Xu is imprisoned by monk Fa Hai at Jinshan Temple, Madame White Snake fights with Fa Hai. During the fight, she summons a great amount of water to flood the temple.

Though this legend has been adapted into many opera forms, the Gezai Opera version of "White Snake" combines Chinese traditional drama with modern technology and stage effects.

"About 14 fire engines will be used to vividly depict the story's best-known fight scene, the 'Flooding of Jinshan Temple'," Sun said. "Hanging on a wire I will 'stand' on the 45-meter-high jets of water to demonstrate the heroine's water witchcraft."

The scene is the climax of the two-hour show. At that time spectators are asked to put on blue raincoats to appear as "seawater" surrounding the stage.

Spectators have really taken the show to heart. In Taiwan, young fans often wave glow sticks during the performance, something that would be considered unimaginable at traditional Chinese operas.

Gezai Opera is sung in south Fujian dialect and started in Taiwan in the early 20th century. It has absorbed the elements of regional operas like Liyuan Opera, Beiguan Opera and Peking Opera. The result is a blend of performances, roles, costumes, theatrical masks and percussion.

Meanwhile, Ming Hwa Yuan, founded in 1929, has played an important role in the development of Gezai Opera. It now gives more than 200 performances every year. The company has even toured Japan, Southeast Asia, France and the United States.

Sun has performed many impressive stage roles like emperors, generals and prime ministers, as well as Li Xuan, one of the Eight Immortals according to ancient legend. However, Madame White Snake is her favorite role.

"Bai is very special in my eyes," Sun said. "She is an exceptionally outstanding woman but the only meaningful thing in her life is to love her husband. She devotes herself to being an ordinary and happy wife."

Surprisingly, Sun's opera career didn't take the usual path of countless hours of training in acrobatics and martial arts from a young age. Her career began as an accident. And it started when she was already a mother in her late 20s, an age most feel is far too old to begin an opera career.

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