Taiwanese Oprera Expat


Taiwanese Opera

Even to the neophyte Taiwanese Opera can be overwhelming. The involved story, myriad of elaborately costumed and intricately painted characters, pulsing lights, cacophony of instruments and ear piercing cries make for a sensually intense and confusing experience--especially if one doesn't understand Taiwanese. Fortunately, there are many redeeming stage conventions that aid in understanding this seemingly chaotic art form. A rudimentary understanding of history, roles, stage gestures, props and story can help one appreciate and enjoy this unique Taiwanese art form. 


The origin of Taiwanese opera began in Ilan, Taiwan, about a century ago.   It was called lotisao , which is now the oldest and purest form of Taiwanese opera. It is also widely accepted--even by its practitioners--as incredibly boring. It is characterized by stiff acting, an absence of props (and even costumes), basic scripts (if any), and singing roles sung by an all-male cast. Four bamboo poles on the ground usually mark the stage, hence the name lotisao : "performing on the ground". Lotisao is still practiced in Ilan, but only as a historical curiosity. 

Fortunately, Taiwanese opera has evolved over the years. In its "heydays", the 1920s to '50s (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 worst occurring during the Japanese occupation when Japanese assimilation policies during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 threatened Taiwanese opera's very existence. Nowadays Taiwanese opera needs to compete with newer media and is straining to adapt.

The Roles 
There are typically four major roles in Taiwanese opera: The male lead, sheng, the female lead, dan ( the supporting male lead, jing, and the jester, chou.   There are further sub-roles, such as 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. Actors don't always play roles of their own gender. While opera fans can usually recognize an actor's role, it can be difficult for the layman. The jester 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.



Stage Gestures 
Although these are much too involved to explain in this article, a simple explanation of basic gestures will reveal volumes of the story to the novice opera-goer. A few key gestures include: h ands clasped behind the back to signify bravery; wringing of hands to express worry, walking in circles (or the backdrop spinning in circles) to represent a long journey or the advancement of time and acrobatics to indicate a battle.

Props are traditionally simple.   Tables and chairs often represent different things and carrying a whip means a character is riding a horse.   Nowadays however, the backdrops of the larger troupes are often meticulously created and need no interpretation.   Props are becoming more elaborate because of


the drive to keep with the times and through the influence of TV operas.

The Story 
Obviously, knowing the story will make an opera easier to understand. Most opera troupes perform well-known stories. The best way to learn the story is to ask early arrivals what opera is being performed (it is not unusual for fans to reserve their front row seats up to five hours in advance). All troupes follow the same basic conventions 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. You can see this when announcements of Suen Tsuei-feng (a popular opera star), posters after a performance garner the same response as Jay or Jolin posters would from a crowd of junior high school students. Opera is a unique treasure of Taiwanese culture and well worth watching as a cultural experience or simply as a great form of entertainment.

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