Musical with a message

By HWEI KER, The Star, July 30, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Love and compassion can change lives – that’s the message at the heart of Mystical Journey to Putuo Shan.

<< Au Yang: "I drew inspiration from the Lotus Sutra of Buddha’s teachings."

Au Yang Yao Chih has experienced Buddhist monastic life in Fuo Guang Shan monastary in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, visited two holy places in China and made a pilgrimage to India to visit four places that revolved round the life of Buddha.

All this was in preparation for a musical titled Mystical Journey to Putuo Shan, a story about Bodhisattva Guan Yin to be staged in Kuala Lumpur from this weekend. The musical will be in English, with Chinese subtitles.

Au Yang is the scriptwriter, lyricist, composer and producer for the musical. “I first had the idea in 2003 but started working on it one-and-a-half years ago.” 

The two holy places in China she visited were Putuo Shan, in Zhejiang Province, and Jiu Hua Shan, in Anhui Province. In India she went to Lumbini, where Buddha was born; Buddhagaya, where he attained enlightenment; Saranath, where he gave his first sermon, and Kushinagar, where he passed away. In Kushinagar, Au Yang was invited to perform her compositions of Buddhist songs.

The musical is being staged by La Comerata di Opera (Friends of the Opera), of which Au Yang is the chairperson. She has performed as a pianoforte soloist as well as an accompanist in concerts, recitals, festivals and workshops in England, China, Hong Kong, North Korea and Singapore. She also plays the harpsichord, violin, flute, er hu and other instruments.

Mystical Journey to Putuo Shan is set in the 20th century, and Au Yang hopes to capture Guan Yin’s great compassion and show that it exists in everyone. 

“Compassion can bring about world peace,” said Au Yang, who hopes to take the musical to the far ends of the earth.

She has put together a cast of local and international talents from Australia, Taiwan and Germany.

Mystical Journey to Putuo Shan tells the story of a poor butcher, named Chen, who is reformed through his great compassion for his ailing child, Su Li. His wife had died in a fire in the village, while his father had passed away from an illness. Chen blames all his misfortunes on his aged mother, a compassionate figure who has the heart of Guan Yin.

He sets out to find a cure for his daughter after being told by a monk to go to Putuo Shan to seek the help of Guan Yin. It’s a trying journey, at the end of which Chen is a changed man. In the meantime, his mother had nursed his child to health. The same monk tells him to go home immediately and thank Guan Yin. He finds her in the face of his mother.

”I drew inspiration from the Lotus Sutra of Buddha’s teachings. You can think of Guan Yin in any form. She comes in 33 guises. Most people think of her as female. In Tibet they regard Guan Yin as male; he is Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,” said Au Yang.

The 33 guises of Guan Yin are depicted by 15 dancers who flit in and out to show her in different forms. 

Professor Tseng Dau-Hsiong, conductor, baritone and musical educator, is production advisor and stage director. The founder of the Taiwan Opera Theatre, Tseng has given critically acclaimed recitals and operatic performances in Europe, the United States, Japan, Taiwan and South-East Asia. 

He has worked extensively with local artistes here since 1981. Tseng has held workshops, seminars and classes on opera singing, and also staged excerpts from well-known operas here. He refers to the musical as a “pilgrim’s progress, a mystical journey ending in the transformation of a person who is a butcher. He is reformed through the cultivation of five precepts – no killing, no stealing, no lying, no getting intoxicated (though you can drink), and no sexual misconduct.”

Cha Seng Tiang, who plays the butcher, finds the musical very special and the Buddhist teachings it embodies very meaningful. A well-known performer and teacher, Cha teaches voice at Universiti Malaya’s Cultural Centre and UTM’s Music Department. He has lent his vocal prowess to operatic roles in Carmen, The Barber of Seville and The Merry Widow, among others, in recitals in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Xie Kun, who plays Guan Yin, is one of the Dragon Tenors who have performed in Australia, South-East Asia and China, to rave reviews. Xie, who hails from Beijing now resides in Melbourne. 

Playing Guan Yin as a male, then as a female, is a challenge for Xie. For the female part, he has to sing in a counter-tenor voice.

Aw Yeow Hoay plays the monk. “It’s the first time for me in this role. I’m still feeling my way around,” said Aw, a professional pianist and singer.

Chan Nyim plays a kind and protective mother to a son who has hardened himself against her. But she doesn’t reject him. 

“If you walk the way of Guan Yin, you would bring out the goodness in people,” she said. “In the musical, the mother collects herbs and does her best to heal people out of love. She doesn’t expect anything in return.”

Mystical Journey to Putuo Shan will be staged from Aug 3-5 at the Dewan Heng Gok Hai, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets are by donations of RM100. For enquiries call Ms Hoh (012-2338017), Ms Chew (012-3319228) or Ms Wong (012-3710611).