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Given that ghosts and spirits travel in straight lines, diversionary tactics are required to deflect these beings from inflicting damage upon themselves or mortals. Narratives in South East Asian performance traditions often unfold in circular patterns. The elliptical storyline is seen by composer Liza Lim as a safety device against spirits. 'A controlled space is thus created to deal with potentially dangerous situations.'1 The seemingly volatile Yue Ling Jie (Moon Spirit Feasting) is just such a space. A 'Chinese Ritual Street Opera in Seven Parts', this work by ELISION was premiered on the River Torrens as part of Adelaide Festival 2000. Music is by Lim, the libretto by Beth Yahp. If a neat plot full of sequential action and denouement were desired, one would be bitterly disconcerted. Yue Ling Jie captivated, startled, bemused, challenged and deeply respected its audience. The work draws on the mythology of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Chinese in origin, this annual month-long festival erupts wherever there are followers, as ghosts without ancestors are let loose into the world through the Gates of Hell. The full moon during the festival is the most dangerous time of the year, as the earth becomes crammed with hordes of hungry ghosts badly in need of amusement and a good feed. Communities take on collective roles to attend to these rampant spirits so that they may protect themselves for another year. There are countless versions of the Hungry Ghost story. Lim describes what she calls 'the potential archaeology of the story'- what we can decipher about a society's interests from the accents within each version.2 Lim notes,
The opera conjures up the figure of Chang-0 to re-tell her story from a number of angles: Chang- 0 as a woman who is transformed into a goddess; as a figure of psychic nightmare; as a wishgranting heavenly creature (associated with fertility). The stories can be understood as projections of aspects of a society's anima in terms of symbolic interactions between cosmic forces .3
Both Lim and Yahp have strong familial links with Malaysia. Chinese communities in Penang contribute enthusiastically to the local street ritual celebrations. The Hungry Ghost Festival is a highlight, and coincides with the Autumn Moon Festival in honour of Chang-0 (the Moon Goddess). Street shrines are erected to appease the ghosts, movies are screened along with outbursts of rough-and-ready Cantonese opera. These are eclectic performances: worship of a hybrid, resourceful kind. Electric guitars are played alongside actors wearing traditional operatic costumes and rubber thongs. Paper TV sets are burned in deference to the wandering spirits at shrines just a breath away from jostling taxis. This is not virtuosic pre-cultural-revolution-style Beijing opera, but an artform relocated and evolved in particular ways in specific contexts worldwide. According to Lim, there is a quality within street opera that is highly integrated within the Chinese diaspora. Various contemporary dialects reinvent this loosely recollected cultural form, as the faithful re-activate and 'maintain a tradition that barely exists any more'.4
Back in Adelaide a disarming sense of occasion was created as one walked along the River, lured by a reflected pink glow emanating from a motley line of fluoro tubes sprouting from the earth-their lurid colour intensified by wafts of incense. Moving towards the stage (a gaudily lit barge tethered to the shore) one entered the sprawling dedicated site to become engulfed in waves of fragrant smoke that disgorged from massive pillar-like coloured joss sticks for days on end. Handfuls of incense were given to the audience to do with as they wished-some made private offerings at the shrine, while others lit them on the riverbank from where the performance was viewed.
The continuum that exists between the spirit and the mortal worlds-the interactive play between 'the ghosts' and 'the living ' was consciously evoked in the work through the physical presence of the shrine (and banquet table) and through the dramatic structure of the work itself. An appropriately tacky shrine was erected to the Moon Goddess and to the Goddess of Mercy and Fertility (Quan Yin). Blessed by local Buddhist monks early in the rehearsal period, the shrine was attended to daily by all those involved in the opera, becoming almost another character within the ensemble. Additionally a banquet table groaning with food and incense was laid for the immortals. It was as if the performance of the opera began for the (invisible) ghosts well before the (visible) audiences appeared. Following the street opera style, the work opened with an invocation of the spirits by Hou Yi (the Archer). A puppet show-within-the-show was presented next, to amuse the gods/audience, by The Monkey King/Hanuman (Orren Tanabe) and the demonic Queen Mother of the West (Melissa Madden Gray). The savage symbolic 'feeding' occurred as the stage was transformed into a Hungry Ghost who unfurled a colossal inflatable tongue into the audience. Chang-O's story was told and retold throughout, ending with a departing prayer by Hou Yi who led the musicians (conducted by Simon Hewett) from the stage, through the audience and back to the shrine. Finally there was release back to the heavens as Chang-0/the Moon Goddess (Deborah Kayser) sang an exquisiie aria to the full moon.
Juxtapositions between the divine and the profane are important for Lim. Just as icons of the elegant Quan Yin sat on the Yue Ling Jie shrine beside cigarettes and a statue of a drunken monk, so too the presence of passing rowers and joggers became integral to the daily ritual throughout rehearsals. Despite the context being so vastly different from the spirit-laden streets of Penang, the sense of co-existence amongst artforms, the spirit world and the prosaic was present in Adelaide. The siting of the piece on the water connected beautifully with natural, (particularly lunar) cycles. Yet the spirit of street performance was ever present. One night, local Adelaide boys performed serious tyre-screeching in the park across the River; on another, floodlights and the jolly sound of rackets and balls from the nearby tennis court became integrated into the work, while helicopters (equipped with penetrating search lights) and jack-hammers contributed resoundingly to the performance soundscape. Two moments were especially memorable. One was the whoosh of a plane overhead as the Monkey King utters 'Look! A cloud of bad omen flies across the sky'.5 The other was the swooping flutter of wings as black swans alighted from the river's surface seconds after Chang-0 is transformed into a Goddess, flies to the Moon and sings her final aria: 'I rise, I ripple, I reach, I resonate, I relinquish, I face, I embrace you'.6
Since its inception in 1986, ELISION has forged a unique presence in the Australian music world through its tireless commitment to the commissioning, performance and recording of new music in the contemporary classical genre, earning the ensemble a formidable international reputation and performance schedule. But it is its work with collaborative site-specific installation, particularly in terms of inspired international collaborations between visual artists (for instance Judith Wright (Australia), Domenico De Clario (Australia), Crow (UK), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (Thailand) and Heri Dono (Indonesia)) and composers that has truly broken new ground. These projects require substantial budgets and were often assisted through commissions by major events such as Perth Festival, the Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, and the Adelaide Festival.
The intersections and impossibilities of multiple languages are acute in these high risk collaborations. For Yue Ling Jie, the libretto was written in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and a colloquial Malaysian-English dialect. Penang audiences would understand all four languages and although this was not so in Adelaide, it is also not essential to understand every word. Each language was consciously included for its unique purpose, defining the territory of each character.7 The complexities of language were mirrored and amplified within the musical score in Yue Ling Jie. A subtle dynamic existed in the synthesis of text, voice, and instrumental sound.
The discordant hybridity evident in the costuming was present in all aspects of the opera. The Queen Mother's (vaguely pornographic) transparent plastic costume was based loosely on the 'chong sam'. The flashing lotus lights, the trashy mirror ball, the glaring neon tubes and the monstrous joss sticks were all sourced by the designer (Dorotka Sapinska) and director (Michael Kantor) in Penang. The costumes 'open out' and 'peel away' to reveal layers beneath. In fact many aspects of the design, music, direction and libretto were centred on the idea of the 'Chinese box'. The stage was an eight-sided barge in the shape of a 'pakua' which housed the eight trigrams symbolising the cosmic energy forms of the universe. The set was a makeshift assortment of bamboo scaffolding defined by light. The performers moved between the barge-space and the audience throughout, continually fracturing the containment of the theatrical box and our belief in it. In the final scene, Chang-0 disrupted all faith as she departed the entire stage-box via a ladder.
Ultimately there was no 'resolution '. The Moon Goddess returned to the spirit world, the performers, musicians and crew retreated from the 'pakua', the audience departed the dedicated ground. The crisis had been averted, only to re-revisited (in the spirit world at least) same time next year. Lim describes this as an 'agreed moment of parting'.8
1. Liza Lim, interview with the author, 11 April 2000, Brisbane.
3. Liza Lim, 'Synopsis' in Yue Ling jie: Performance Program, Adelaide Festival, March 2000.
4. Liza Lim, interview ... , op cit.
5. Beth Yahp, Yue Llng jie: Libretto, Adelaide Festival, March 2000, p. 7.
6. ibid. p. 16.
7. Language is constantly attended to within current work by companies such as Zuni lcosahedron in Hong Kong and Theatre Works in Singapore, who are concerned equally with language, (mis)t ranslat ion and cultural transformations in different contexts.
8. Liza Lim. interview .... op cit.