Posts Tagged ‘Taiwanese opera’

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.



Taiwanese opera: 2. Sentimental journey

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 13 日 in Taiwanese opera

Taiwanese opera originated in Ilan county, and its local roots have no doubt helped make it the island’s most popular form of Chinese opera. Tradition has it that roughly a century ago, recent migrants from the mainland and longer term Chinese residents combined songs popular in Fujian province with local folk dances to create the embryonic form of Taiwanese opera called lotisao (落地掃).

The earliest style was starkly simple and usually performed during the parades that are an essential part of many folk religion festivities. Amateur opera performers accompanying the processions would periodically lay down four long sticks to form a square stage, then act out a short and often ludicrous story to the accompaniment of a few homemade musical instruments. Female roles were played by men, and only the heroine wore hair decorations and makeup.

Over the decades, lotisao retained much of its original singing styles and many of the gestures that were used in early folk dance, but its performances moved from ground-level up to temporary outdoor stages. Moreover, the repertoire expanded from brief episodes to complete plays. By this time, it had already started incorporating aspects of many different Chinese operatic forms from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, as well as Peking opera. The result was a uniquely Taiwanese operatic hybrid.

Taiwanese opera, like other forms, combing song, acrobatics, and martial arts. But singing is what gives it a special flavor. Oftentimes heartrending and downright depressing, the songs are easy to understand because they are sung naturally, rather than in the eardrum-wrenching falsetto typical of Peking opera.

According to Chang Hsuan-wen, who has written a number of books and articles on the subject, Taiwanese opera has eleven major singing styles with “seven words (七字仔),” tu-ma (都馬調), “tearful tone (哭調仔)” being the most popular. “Seven words,” the most representative style of the genre, consists of four-sentence stanzas, with each sentence having seven words. Purists say that if this style does not occur during a performance, it cannot be considered a genuine Taiwanese opera. Tu-ma is the most melodious form of singing and is used for romantic scenes, but “tearful tone” tops the popularity lists, as sad circumstances abound in most scripts. This style became more prevalent during the Japanese occupation period (1895-1945), supposedly as a channel for Taiwanese to vent their sadness, frustration, and anger about colonial oppression.

Taiwanese opera is accompanied by at least eight different instruments, including flutes, strings, cymbals, and drums. Most groups have no more than five members, although the well-known Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwanese Opera Company (明華園) uses ten or more musicians, formed along the lines of a Peking opera orchestra.


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.


Dutiful Diva: an interview of Sun Tsui-feng (孫翠鳳) by Kelly Her  (Free China Review/ September, 1998)

By an ironic coincidence, Ming Hwa Yuan’s leading lady married the man who was destined to become its producer only on condition that she would not be made to work in the family troupe. Few could have predicted her future fame—or its price.

Sun Tsui-feng knew nothing about Taiwanese opera until she married into the Ming Hwa Yuan family at the age to twenty-four. At first, her contributions were limited to taking bit parts, but she soon became stage-struck and dedicated to make a career of it. She is now the troupe’s leading performer, specializing in playing male leads. Sun frequently appears on television and in movies, and since her face is so well-known across the island, she has probably done more to popularize Ming Hwa Yuan than any other individual.

My life changed forever when I got married. Before that, I never thought I’d someday be involved with Taiwanese opera, which was all Greek to me then. I was born and educated in Taipei and considered myself a typically modern young miss. My father was a mainlander who met and married my Taiwanese mother over here, and at home we always spoke Mandarin.

Then one day, Chen Sheng-fu (Sun’s husband, the troupe’s president), the son of my mother’s elder sister, came to visit. Although we were cousins, I’d never met him before, because his family lived in the southernmost part of the island. At that time he was doing his compulsory military service in Taipei, and he used to hang out at our place whenever he was on leave. That was how we got to know each other, and eventually we fell in love.

My mother didn’t mind us getting married, but she did insist on one thing—my husband shouldn’t force me to get involved with Taiwanese opera, which she thought was real drudgery. At that time my husband-to-be was in the movie business and he didn’t have anything to do with the family troupe, so he felt free to make that commitment.

In the early years of our marriage, we’d go back to visit his family once in a while. At that time, everyone in the family, including all my sisters-in-law, worked for the troupe in some way. My husband and I were the only exceptions, although my in-laws were always very nice to me. They understood how I felt, and never asked me to get involved. But every time I went back and saw everyone so busy with the troupe, I felt a bit guilty. It was as if I wasn’t really part of this family, which put such huge stress on unity and always doing the right thing.

In the end, I volunteered to help out by playing minor roles when there wasn’t anyone else. And in the process, I gradually became interested in Taiwanese opera and found out that I might have some kind of talent for it. So once I started to take it seriously, I thought I should start learning some of the necessary techniques, including singing and acting, if I were to become a real professional.

But there was one big problem: I couldn’t speak Taiwanese. Luckily, I was able to pick it up quite quickly, just by being in the troupe—it was a great learning environment. Because I wanted to improve my acting, I began to practice acrobatics when I was thirty. It’s a real disadvantage to start such tough training at that age, particularly when, like me, you’ve had a child.

There were times when I’d get discouraged and burst into tears, but I never thought of quitting. At first, my awkwardness made everybody laugh at me. Fortunately, I’ve never been afraid of that, and I’d just laugh, too. But once everybody had gone home, I’d stay behind and practice until I’d caught up. Then I promised myself that nobody would laugh at me the next day, I was determined to come out a winner, and I’ve always believed that you can overcome your faults if you try hard enough. Through sheer hard work and not losing faith in myself, I managed to learn the most difficult techniques, one by one.


Nowadays, I seem to enjoy a lot of fame and glamour, but I’ve paid a high price for it. Gains and losses go together. When I’m on stage, I’ll be energetic and in high spirits, because it’s my job to play the part well. But once I get off that stage, I often feel exhausted. It’s as though I swap my health and well-being for a robust performance and the applause afterward. I’ve got bruises all over my body, and when the weather’s bad all my muscles ache. But I never regret devoting my life to Taiwanese opera. On the contrary—I feel glad that my acting potential was realized through joining this big family.

Taiwanese opera has made me what I am today, and I hope my example will inspire young people in this and other fields. It’s never too late to do something. You’re never too old. Stick to what you want to do and never give up. If you want to be the best, that means you have to pay a higher price. Even now that I’m in my forties, I still practice my acrobatics. And I’m still learning increasingly difficult movements. I do it because I want to bring something new and different to my performances. That’s particularly important with Taiwanese opera—otherwise our audiences will just trickle away.

Lots of people have to stick with jobs they don’t enjoy, in order to make a living. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make a successful career out of something I like. Currently I’m involved in a number of TV and movie projects, but once they’re finished I’ll come back to Taiwanese opera and give it my all.

My greatest ambition now is to become a teacher. For a long time, I didn’t even dare think about it, because my school grades were poor, but now I can teach Taiwanese opera from experience. Over the past seven years, I’ve taught occasionally at local schools and community groups. It’s hard, because every student’s different. But despite that, I feel a great sense of achievement when people I’ve taught come back to tell me how learning Taiwanese opera had a positive effect on their lives, both mentally and physically.

Some parents have even said that since their children started attending my classes, they are behaving better. They come back home immediately after school to practice, rather than fool around with their friends. I’m glad to know that Taiwanese opera isn’t just a source of entertainment, it’s also got some relevance to people’s daily lives. That’s our aim, and we should never forget it.

My husband’s involved in setting up an art college and a folk village. I admire his vision and his courage very much—he gets my full support. But he works too hard, even when he’s ill. Sometimes I think it’s only willpower that keeps him going. To me, he’s Superman. It’s his determination and hard work that have made Ming Hwa Yuan so popular.

In this time of drastic social change, we’re faced with much tougher competition than my in-laws had to put up with in the old days. We’ve got to preserve Taiwanese opera here, and we’ve also got to try to boost it into the international arena. People used to look down on opera performers. I want them to receive greater respect from society and some financial security as well. That way, they’ll muster the confidence to pass the torch on to the next generation.