Taiwanese opera: 1. Sentimental journey

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 13 日 in Taiwanese opera

Sentimental Journey by Violet Chang (Free China Review/ September, 1998)

If you like TV soaps, you’ll love Taiwanese opera: earthy and tragic plots, colloquial dialogue, maudlin lyrics, sobbing arias, and high TPM (tears-per-minute) ratings.

By 1964, according to one official estimate, barely one hundred troupes were still performing in theaters. Eventually, in a significant sign of the times, the famous Kung Yueh She troupe disbanded in 1974. By then, all theaters had eliminated opera performances, leaving troupes to eke out a living from outdoor performances, normally at temples during religious festivals.

What have been the attractions of Taiwanese, past and present? There are many. Unlike an opera by, say, Verdi or Wagner—or even, to some extent, a Peking opera—Taiwanese opera presents no cultural barriers to the island’s audiences.

Language is also important. Dialogue and lyrics are in colloquial Taiwanese, long the locally preferred lingua franca over the Peking-accented Mandarin Chinese imported from the mainland and used in schools and government since the late 1940s. Even today, many senior citizens know little or no Mandarin and communicate almost exclusively in Taiwanese. Taiwanese opera is easily understood by such folks—and it also appeals to many younger people who find Taiwanese a much more earthy and expressive language than Mandarin, which is considered formal, if not downright stodgy.

Other attractions are what one would expect. Nostalgia: audiences see old favorites and are reminded of performances and performers they have seen in the past. Entertainment: watching an opera performance is a way to put aside immediate pressures and take the family for a cheap diversion, as most outdoor shows are free. Escape: senior citizens in particular have few leisure-time options and Taiwanese opera is a good way to counter boredom.

But it is the homegrown origin of Taiwanese opera that is largely prompting the contemporary emphasis on its revival. The island has a unique history, and more and more people are concerned about preserving it. “We cannot let Taiwanese opera fall into oblivion, because it records the difficult pioneer days of our ancestors and it can remind younger generations to treasure today’s prosperity,” says Li Chan-ping of the Historical Research Commission, alluding to the array of colorful expressions, slang, and traditional folk songs that are part of many operas.





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