The stage set for A Musical Banquet, which Taiwan’s Chai Found Music Workshop is bringing to LunarFest this weekend, is as striking an array of shapes and colours as you’re likely to see. Giant red barrel drums are racked high above the performers’ heads, silver cymbals glitter under spotlights, and enormous iron gongs loom, planetlike, in a solar system of their own.
But wait: those are not drums, cymbals, and gongs, they’re plastic garbage cans, frying pans, and plus-sized woks. A Musical Banquet, which is subtitled A Feast of Sumptuous Classical Music, is set in a Taiwanese restaurant, and the performers’ elegant black tunics have been sourced from a restaurant-supply store, not from one of the Asian island’s many couturiers. The troupe, which boasts some of Taiwan’s top young performers on the erhu, pipa, guzheng, and ruanxian, will deliver what it’s best known for: virtuosic renditions of sizhu, or Chinese classical music. But with this new production, it’s moving further into the realm of musical theatre.
“This is not a traditional concert,” says director Hao-Hsiang Hsu, reached by telephone while breakfasting in Taipei. According to Hsu, who’s been tasked with bringing drama and dance into the troupe’s skill set, Chai Found Music Workshop founder Chen-Ming Huang has been worried by declining audience numbers for the classical arts, so he’s opted to provoke interest through a vivid set, Iron Chef–style on-stage competition, and, naturally, a love angle.
“This is a simple, short story,” says Hsu, explaining that A Musical Banquet is set in a restaurant specializing in celebratory feasts. “The chef, he wants to retire, and two of his students, they have a competition to see who can own his restaurant. There’s also a love story inside; they have a very beautiful student in his restaurant, and two of the guys, they both want to, um, make this girl happy.”
The way to her heart, it seems, is through cooking, embodied here by a percussive and very musical clatter of trash cans, saucepans, and woks. The more classical elements take place in a kind of dream world—amplifying, as Hsu points out, the angry, jealous, or romantic emotions of the protagonists.
“When they’re cooking, they’re acting their characters,” he says. “But when they play their instruments, I think that’s not reality.”
The show also expresses a uniquely Taiwanese world-view, and its restaurant setting is no coincidence. “Taiwanese love food,” Hsu explains. “When we meet each other, we will ask, ‘Have you finished your breakfast?’ or ‘Have you finished your lunch?’ or ‘Have you finished your dinner?’ So eating food is very, very important to Taiwanese people. When we have some big event, we will invite lots and lots of people—maybe 100 or 200 or 300 people—to come, and we will eat together. We have very special food for this kind of situation. So Mr. Huang, he wanted to combine the music and the food cultures, so he made this big show.”
In other words, this Musical Banquet really is a feast for the ears—and the eyes, too.
LunarFest presents A Musical Banquet: A Feast of Sumptuous Classical Music at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (January 25).