A brief introduction to Taiwanese opera.
To the Taiwanese Opera(歌仔戲) neophyte, the involved story, myriad of elaborately costumed, intricately painted characters, pulsing lights, cacophony of instruments and ear piercing cries that are all typical of a performance, can be a bit much. Especially if one doesn’t understand theTaiwanese language. Fortunately, for the non-aficionado, there are many characteristic stage conventions to aid in understanding this seemingly chaotic art form. A rudimentary understanding of history, roles, stage gestures/props and story can lead to a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of this indigenous Taiwanese art form.
The generally accepted origin of Taiwanese opera is in Ilan about a hundred years ago, in the form of lotisao. Lotisao is considered the oldest, purest form of Taiwanese opera. It is also accepted — even by its practitioners — as incredibly boring. It is characterized by stiff acting an absence of props and even costumes in the extreme, basic (if any) scripts and roles being sung by an all male cast.
Four bamboo poles on the ground usually marked the stage, hence lotisao, “performing on the ground.”
It is still practiced in Ilan, but only as a curiosity and for historical purposes. Its historical popularity was attributed to being indigenous, using the local language, and the stories reflecting local culture therefore making it accessible to ordinary Taiwanese.
Fortunately, Taiwanese opera has evolved through the years. In its two “heydays” of the 1920s to 1930s and then the 1940s to 1950s (due to opera on TV) opera stars were as popular as rock stars and movie stars are today. Taiwanese opera also had bad years; the most serious was during Japanese rule when they implemented their assimilation policies during the Sino Japanese war of 1937. Performances were banned and Taiwanese opera’s very existence was threatened. Nowadays Taiwanese opera is challenged by newer media, so it is straining hard to adapt with the times.
THE ROLES: There are typically four major roles in Taiwanese opera: The male lead or sheng(生), the female lead; dan
(旦), the supporting male lead; jing(淨), and the jester; chou(丑). These can be further divided into many sub roles, for example one subcategory of the female lead is the sad female; ku dan (easily spotted as the woman who is always crying). Costumes and makeup are often good indicators of roles. Gender, however, is not.
Simply being a woman does not necessarily mean they have a woman’s role, and vice versa. While opera fans can instantly recognize an actor’s role, for the layman it is not always so easy. The clown is usually unkempt, has a red nose and the crowd laughs whenever they speak or sing. The supporting male lead is usually indicated by face paint while the male and female leads are typically brightly dressed and generally stand out as leads.
STAGE GESTURES AND PROPS: Further, an understanding of stage gestures and props will increase the understanding and therefore the enjoyment of Taiwanese opera. Although too involved for the scope of this article, simply knowing that most gestures have meaning will open up a new facet of the opera. Some examples of this include: clasped hands behind the back for bravery, wringing ones hands expresses worry, walking in circles (or backdrop spinning in circles) represents a long journey or advancement of time, and acrobatics indicate battle.
Props are generally simple with tables and chairs able to represent many different things and carrying a whip means they are riding a horse. Nowadays however, the backdrops of the larger troupes are often meticulously created and need no interpretation and the props are becoming more elaborate because of the drive to keep with the times and through the influence of TV operas. The more you watch the more conventions you will discover.
THE STORY: Finally, and somewhat obviously, knowing the story will make understanding the opera easier. Most opera troupes have set stories that are well received and well known. The best way to learn the story is to ask people who arrive early what opera is being performed (it is not unusual for people to reserve their front row seats up to five hours prior to a large performance).
All troupes will follow these basic conventions whether big or small, famous or unknown. Even a basic understanding of these conventions will make watching an opera a more enjoyable experience.
Although not as popular as it once was, Taiwanese opera still has a strong local following. Attested to by the announcements of Suen Tsuei-feng posters after a performance garnering the same response as Jay or Joline posters would get from junior high school students on the island. Taiwanese opera is well worth watching as a cultural heritage treasure as well as just a great form of entertainment.
Article previously published in China Post(Jan 4th, 2007):
Another version in Xpat(Spring ’07):
And finally, in Topics Magazine–text by Steven Crook–and photos by me(Vol 37,No 6):