Spirits: Hong Kong’s New Show of Ghost Stories
Two-time Golden Horse Award winner Sylvia Chang is bringing an adaptation of the 2019 stage production, Before the Sunrise, from Taiwan to Hong Kong this month. The veteran actress is collaborating with Chun-chieh Yen, Best Classical Performer at the 19th Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan, and Mathias Woo, co-artistic director and executive director of Hong Kong based international experimental theatre company Zuni Icosahedron, to adapt the show into a brand new performance, titled Spirits, which will be shown at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this October.
Spirits strings together five ghost stories about unrequited love. It’s nothing one may expect of a show staged a week before Halloween, as Chang demystifies that the production isn’t haunting. “There are a lot of ghost stories in classical music. They are mostly about the spiritual, and people talk about the spiritual side of things to pursue love or that which is unobtainable in reality through writing,” she explained in Zuni’s interview last month.
The stories are taken from literature, monologues and poems across cultures, translated by Taiwanese music critic Chiao Yuan-pu and read by Chang. Set against the backdrop by Woo’s experimental play of light and shadow, the show will be accompanied by Yen’s solo performance of classical music pieces inspired by love, including “Scherzo” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn/Rachmaninoff, “Gaspard de la nuit” by Ravel, “Danse Macabre” by Charles Camille Saint-Saëns, as well as “From Années de Pèlerinage: 2ème Année: Italie” and “Lenore” by Franz Liszt.
These pieces, “Gaspard de la nuit” in particular, are a feat of finger coordination due to their speed and complicated combinations of scales and arpeggios. Yet Yen suggests there’s more to look for beyond appreciating the skill of the pianist. “‘Gaspard de la nuit’ is unbelievable,” he said in Zuni’s interview. “[The composer] used sound to portray the sound of nature. We can perceive the water spirits’ pleading from the sound of water.” Ravel, known for saying with notes what a poet expresses with words, captures the splashes and flow of water in his musical narrative, as well as the pain of married man Gaspard who cannot follow the enchanting water-princess Undine into the water – a dreamy, fantasy poem by French Romantic poet and playwright Aloysius Bertrand. “I want the audience to recall their own life stories through the show,” Yen says.
For Chang, the challenge isn’t only “to open [her] heart to listen[ing] to the beautiful classical pieces”. She finds herself grappling with unfamiliar grounds despite her 40-year-long acting career. “Acting involves a lot of support from the camera, props and settings,” she says. “Yet if it’s only vocal acting, it’s like you stand alone naked on stage. You have to use the energy released from your voice, facial express and charm to catch the attention of your audience. A lot of actors forget to train the use of their voices.” Chang says that using the voice differently is fundamental to changing the personalities of the actor, the story development and portraying various characters. She enjoys reading literary texts aloud, which sounds different emotionally than the original. “It helps my acting,” she says. In Spirits, Chang will be playing 13 characters.
Chang says that the cross-disciplinary performance is in fact a very popular form of entertainment in the past. “A lot of young people aren’t aware that classical music used to be popular music [between roughly 1730 and 1820],” she says. “Sometimes there was a story that inspired the music, as the composer wrote the music according to a poem, and sometimes it’s the other way round. Nowadays, we add more lighting and images to make [the production] more colourful.”
This Hong Kong production stands out from its Taiwanese precursor with Yen’s live performance from Taiwan, which will be streamed during the performance in Hong Kong, as well as Woo’s new set built at the Cultural Centre. “Sylvia sent me a trailer of Before the Sunriseone day. It was a speech and music performance. I was very inspired after watching the Taiwan performance excerpt,” Woo recalls. Last year, he was creating a live piano and visual theatre piece with KJ Wong, his long-time idea to add human voice into a musical work. “After watching Sylvia’s video, I thought: perfect. I am interested in non-narrative media such as sounds and visuals. In Spirits, what we want to experiment is how to bring out poetic sentiments.”
With three powerhouses in their own fields, one can expect what Woo calls as “new and exciting sparks” from the revival of classical music and age-old love stories on the modern stage of Hong Kong.
Spirits will be shown on October 23 and 24 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Please refer to zuniseason.org.hk for details.