Taiwanese opera: 3. Sentimental journey

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 13 日 in Taiwanese opera

For much of its history, Taiwanese opera performances were decidedly impromptu. Troupes had no official scripts, so the actors had to follow the lead of their “play interpreter,” who laid out the plot, outlined the action of the play, and organized the basic structure for each performance. At best, the actors had a detailed draft to follow, but if the instructions were vague—as often happened—the had great leeway to interpret their parts.

In recent years, impromptu operas have gradually disappeared, because they are too difficult for inexperienced younger actors. Besides, the improvisational approach often resulted in boring or vulgar performances. Today’s larger troupes have compiled detailed scripts to make plots more compact and orderly.

Similar to other Chinese styles, the Taiwanese opera repertoire ranges from heartrending tragedies to riotous comedies, most based on events in Chinese history or legend. Generally speaking, tragedies have been performed more frequently. As time goes by, however, comedies make a comeback sometimes.

Perhaps the three most representative plays in Taiwanese opera are Shih Hsi-chi, a tragicomedy about a brave woman who helps revive the former glory of her husband’s family, and two tragedies, Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-tai (梁祝) and Chen San and Wu Niang (陳三五娘).

Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-tai is a famous Chinese love story. Liang and Chu were classmates who became lovers. But Liang was poor and Chu was a daughter of a rich family. Chu’s family forced her to marry a rich man, whereupon Liang died from lovesickness. On Chu’s wedding day, she visited Liang’s tomb and burst into tears. Her true love apparently touched the hearts of the gods, because the grave suddenly split open, whereupon Chu jumped into her lover’s tomb: both of them were then transformed into butterflies.

Chen San and Wu Niang follows a familiar tragic motif. Chen San loved the beautiful Wu Niang at first sight. He started working for Wu’s family so that he could be closer to her. The two youths eventually became lovers. When Wu’s family decided to marry her off to another person. Chen and Wu decided to elope. Because of a misunderstanding, however, both of them committed suicide.

In the past, the stage sets for these and other plays in the repertoire were simple, portable, and symbolic—for instance, a single, painted cloth covered the back of the stage, and a table would be used to represent a mountain. But troupes such as Ming Hwa Yuan and Hsin Ho Hsing have greatly improved their stage sets by building realistic scenery. Costumes draw on Peking opera, but are rarely as ornate. Makeup for female roles is closer to the Peking opera style, but male roles do not use such heavy and intricate facepaint.

From the earliest performances of lotisao to the first Taiwanese opera movie production in 1956, the local opera form enjoyed widespread popularity, especially because of its sentimental singing and unadulterated local flavor. But this was not to last. Competition from other types of entertainment gradually forced Taiwanese opera into a transition period, where it split into different performance formats: staged Taiwanese opera, modified lotisao, and radio, movie, and television versions.

In recent years, the movie and radio versions have essentially disappeared and, except for occasional performances by the Lan Yang Taiwanese Opera Troupe, lotisao is seldom performed. The televised version, which is heavily influenced by a soap opera mentality, has lost many of the characteristics of traditional Taiwanese opera and is now considered by many people to be a new genre altogether. Outdoor performances, most often held at temple festivities, are falling off as well. Although there are 262 registered opera troupes, not many perform regularly.





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