A young female leaves her world of animals and magic to explore the domain of human beings--and falls in love with a handsome young man.
Sounds not unlike the premise of "The Little Mermaid." But "The Legend of the White Snake"--a Chinese opera that will be staged Saturday at Cal State Northridge--is about 200 years older than Disney's 1989 animated film.
Adapted from one of the most famous tales of Chinese literature, "White Snake" is about two snakes--Suzhen, a white snake, and her companion, Greeney--transformed into maidens. Suzhen marries the handsome Xu Xian, and they live in a village where she uses her magic to heal the sick. But Fahai, a monk who suspects that she is not human, sets about separating them, first by trickery and later, imprisonment.
The tale has all the melodrama expected from European opera. In Peking (or Beijing) opera, however, style is as important as storytelling.
"The costumes are very elaborate, and the singing, the tunes, are very specialized. Also, the gestures are choreographed, so there is more dancing than just using motion," said Tung-Po Lin, a member of CSUN's China Institute, which promotes academic and cultural exchanges.
Lin is also a founding member of the San Fernando Valley Chinese Cultural Assn., the 26-year-old organization that is co-sponsoring the performance. The SFVCCA, which runs language instruction programs as well as sports, music and ballroom dance classes, is putting on the show to raise money to build a Chinese Heritage Center.
The center would give a home to the services the SFVCCA provides for the estimated 20,000 ethnic Chinese who live in the Valley. The association's fund-raising arm, the Chinese Heritage Foundation, needs $6 million to purchase the land and build the center, which would contain a library, auditorium, classrooms and athletic facilities.
Through sponsorships and ticket sales, the groups hope to raise $30,000 on the "White Snake" performance, said Jack Chen, president of the SFVCCA.
That will be possible, in part, because "Legend of the White Snake" is being staged entirely at the expense of the Chao Foundation. Though they have lived in the United States for 50 years, P.C. and Rosana Chao are such devotees of Peking opera that they sponsor professional performances here. The couple also has created the 3-year-old California Institute for the Chinese Performing Arts. The school in El Monte offers classes in Mandarin, martial arts and folk dancing--but its primary focus is Peking opera.
The star of "White Snake" is Shu Rui Yang, who trained at the Beijing Chinese Opera School from the time she was 11. She has performed all over the world, and was recruited to teach at the California Institute for the Chinese Performing Arts.
"She is a national treasure in China," said Rosana Chao. "That's what we are looking for."
Like Yang, many of her co-stars were classically trained in China but are currently living in the United States. Some, like Tai Qi Wang, who will play Xi Xian, have been flown in from New York for the performance.
"They were trained in China, but can't make a living at it," said Rosana Chao. "So they join us to put on as good a show as possible."
In China, Peking opera suffered a tremendous setback during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, and is now struggling because of indifference among the nation's young people. The strict opera schools have folded, as have many opera theaters. The audience is shrinking so precipitously that some companies have started to use elaborate sets rather than the traditional bare stage, and integrated special effects into the action--much to the dismay of traditionalists.
The "White Snake" presented at CSUN, however, will be true to tradition. The stage will have only a simple backdrop and minimal set. The costumes, based on clothes worn during the Ming dynasty, have flowing sleeves, and colorful head wear. All the make-up is exaggerated as well, setting off the expressions and gestures that each has symbolic meaning.
The singing--often very high-pitched, almost whiny to western ears--is so stylized that not even the Chinese can understand it. Translations projected on monitors will be in both English and Mandarin.
"The Legend of the White Snake," at the Cal State Northridge Performing Arts Center, in the Student Union complex, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $30, $10 limited student seats. Tickets are on sale at Evergreen Video, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge. (818) 993-1688. Or call (818) 886-8821 or (818) 831-3793.