Taiwanese Opera Taiwan’s only native theatrical art form

Thursday, May 5, 2005
By Patrick Martino, Special to The China Post

A gong beats. Instruments sore. The actors on a brightly lit stage sing. The opera begins. In this opera, however, there are no obese tenors belting out soaring Italian arias. The words, songs and the performance are all uniquely Taiwanese.

Known as Taiwanese opera, the art form was developed roughly 100 years ago in Ilan. It is Taiwan’s only native theatrical art form. The Taiwan Theater Museum at 101 Fu Shing Road in Ilan is the best place to learn about Taiwanese Opera and its impact on Taiwanese culture.

Built in 1990, the museum celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on Feb. 16 and 17 with a series of outdoor performances.

Chou Li Kuei, a 25 year old man from Ilan, has been coming to see Taiwanese Opera since he was young.

“I watched when I was young. My grandma took me to see,” Mr. Chou said.

The operas tell stories of gods, heroines and heroes. Before KTVs and cable TV Taiwanese Opera was popular entertainment for the masses. Theater troupes traveled across Taiwan and even to Mainland China and Singapore to perform.

For Mr. Chou, the live performances still appeal. Actors dressed in bright flowing robes pined for lovely actresses with ornately pinned and contrived hair. The orchestra of erhus, flutes, and gongs banged, clanged and sang. Given the choice between watching TV or Taiwanese Opera Mr. Chou said he would choose, “Taiwanese Opera first.”

Taiwanese opera’s history is interesting. According to Wang Chen Ping, a retired English teacher and a volunteer at the Taiwanese Theater Museum, Taiwanese opera originated from formal opera styles brought to Taiwan by settlers from Mainland China. The operas were performed for gods at festivals, at weddings, and for special occasions. Over time the formal styles of opera were mixed with local folk songs, folk tales, and the local Taiwanese vernacular to create a unique style of opera.

To a Westerner, Taiwanese Opera might be indistinguishable from Beijing Opera. The hand gestures, the costumes, and even the characters in Taiwanese Opera borrow heavily from Beijing Opera and other Chinese operatic forms. There are important differences. Taiwanese Opera is sung in Taiwanese and not Mandarin. Mrs. Wang explained Taiwanese Opera is also less formal than Beijing Opera because it is sung in a natural voice and lacks the high pitched singing of Beijing Opera.

“Taiwanese opera was performed for all the people to enjoy at night. Taiwanese opera was less formal,” Mrs. Wang said.

Besides being less formal, Taiwanese Opera’s continued popularity has been because of its ability to adapt and change. In one opera, performed by children for the museum’s anniversary, a young actress used a cell phone.

When the museum is not hosting performances of Taiwanese Opera it is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The staff takes an hour break at noon. Admission is free.

The museum has three floors of exhibitions. The first floor is the temporary exhibition hall. The current exhibit is dedicated to the history of Taiwanese opera. The exhibit contains old handbills from past opera performances, costumes, and original hand written songbooks.

The second floor is dedicated to a different style of theater: puppet shows. Hand puppets and marionettes are used in the shows. The shows are related with Taiwanese Opera. The puppet shows often have the same story lines and use the same characters as the operas.

The museum has a large collection of hand puppets and marionettes. There are a myriad of gods, monks and green-faced monsters with fangs. The puppets heads are the size of small plums, and their clothes are just large enough to cover a hand.

The third floor displays Taiwanese Opera costumes, musical instruments and props. Sequins and fake pearls are ubiquitous in the handsome embroidered costumes on display. For the brave there are even costumes to try on. The third floor also has a theater where taped performances of operas can be viewed for those not lucky enough to catch a live performance.

“All the world ‘s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote. Taiwan is a world away from Shakespearean England. Shakespeare couldn’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, but he would surely admire the Taiwan Theater Museum’s ambition to preserve and promote Taiwanese Opera and Taiwan’s own bit of stage culture.

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