Quasimodo with a Taste for Kung Fu
by Desiree Au
South China Morning Post

Hunchback Quasimodo is renamed A Chou, who has great martial-arts skills. Esmeralda is a Chinese beauty, Aisimei, brought up by mainland beggar gangs. This is Victor Hugo's Notre Dame De Paris adapted into a Beijing opera production, The Great Belfry.

The story has undergone countless transformations as movie, theatre and most recently Disney cartoon. But next week's overhaul is without doubt the most intriguing remake.


Beijing opera's dream team, actress Tang Yuen-ha and her husband, composer-producer Yeung Lau-ching, are behind the tribute to Hugo's work. "No matter how many times the story has been done, the Hunchback Of Notre Dame still holds immense appeal," said Tang, who plays Esmeralda.

The bittersweet story of Quasimodo and the beautiful gypsy, told through a melange of martial-arts action and poetic verses, premieres on the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's 10th anniversary.

She and her husband have poured their souls into what they consider their most significant project. "We are trying to make breakthroughs," Tang said.

The couple took an unorthodox approach to writing the script. The storyline is developed from the characters themselves and has been frequently rewritten to accommodate character changes.

Their reworked story tells the tale of Aisimei, an innocent girl raised by a group of beggars, who is torn between three men. She is in love with a handsome lieutenant named Shuai Hu, but he is a philanderer. Eunuch De, a virtuous man who runs the Belfry, is torn between his duty and his feelings for Aisimei. And then there is the hunchback, A Chou, who stands by Aisimei through her darkest hours.

"We thought writing a Beijing opera based on a Western story could give us the creative freedom we need. Many Beijing operas are based on events in Chinese history. But with a Western work, we don't have to worry about accuracy of the story or its characters - everything is up to us," said Tang.

The winner of a National Plum Blossom award, the mainland's highest accolade for an actress, Hong Kong-born Tang is a founder of the Hong Kong Jing Kun Arts Association and has been a significant force in reshaping the local opera scene.

The couple hope their production will change the course of contemporary Beijing opera.

"This is a production conceptualised in Hong Kong, the East-meets-West element is so representative of Hong Kong's culture. It's also part of my background," said Tang, who studied music in France and Switzerland.

"Foreign cultures have made me appreciative of my own country's art form," she said.

"I think every artist should be aware of what is happening around the world and be influenced by that. I think the same goes for Beijing opera. We must continue to experiment, it is the only way to grow."

Why Notre Dame? Well, Shakespeare has been rehashed so many times he has lost his appeal, said Tang, and they like the drama of the tale of tangled love. It lent itself well to Chinese opera. "Simply [Shakespeare] has just been done too much. I think it is a brave move that we are experimenting with Hugo's story," she said. Tang and Yeung were lucky in being able to cast members of the Beijing Opera Company, the Beijing Opera Theatre of Beijing and
the Beijing Opera Company of Shandong Province. "We could literally hand-pick actors because I know so many talents in China," Yeung said.

There are dozens of top performers in the production, including Zhou Long, a renowned martial-arts actor, who plays the hunchback.

"Many people think we should have made the hunchback role a chou, or clown. But I wanted to make him a wusheng - a martial-arts role - because it takes great physical prowess to move around the confines of the bell tower," he added.

Traditional opera fans will be surprised to see the art form given a complete facelift. The Great Belfry will be a one-act play with no scene changes - unheard of in conventional Chinese opera.

Unlike traditional Beijing opera, the music in this production will play a much bigger role in setting the mood. Yeung used Western composition techniques. "I am developing the songs from a motive, inspired by a gesture or the mood of a particular character. This way the music is not simply a background accompaniment but is an integral part of the opera,"
he said.

The set will be minimalist, with two revolving stages and a vast stained glass window. Little else on stage will highlight the intensity of the characters, putting pressure on the performers.

"This is a sad story about people who are unable to change their fate. It is what makes Esmeralda and Quasimodo so enduring," said Tang

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