Sunday, April 8, 2012

Taiwanese Opera: Fun vs. Fine Art

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Taiwanese opera (歌仔戲), even if I post about it far less often than I do temple parades and other festivals. 

This time of year happens to be a great one for Taiwanese opera fans, enthusiasts and people who are just interested and want to check it out. Baosheng Dadi's birthday was this past week, and Bao'an Temple, as a part of its Baosheng Cultural Festival, puts on several operas around the time of the festival: all free, all by good performers, all outdoors in the open stage area directly across from the main temple (which is where firewalking also takes place).

Then, in May, the theater on the top floor of Yongle Market on Dihua Street (yes, there is a theater up there) will start a series of not free but still very good operas that you can buy tickets for online. What's great about these performances is that you can learn about the story ahead of time - drop by Yongle Market or pick up a brochure at Bao'an Temple, where they are often available - and it will list which operas are playing on which days, what tickets cost and how to buy them, and a synopsis of each opera. The summaries are in Chinese, but if you can read Chinese or get a friend to help, you can go in knowing the basic outlines of the story you'll be watching. The operas on Dihua Street will last through June and July, with the Xiahai City God Temple celebrating the City God's birthday and more.

If you've never tried Taiwanese opera, or can read Chinese but are too intimidated by an opera in Taiwanese to check it out, but are interested - now is the time! (Note: for the outside, free operas, lines form as early as 1pm, for some performances you could get away with lining up at 4pm, and chairs are distributed around 5:30 or 6 for a 7pm showing. Show up early or you'll be stuck all the way in the back. You can put a bag down to save a space in line and get those around you to watch it for you and explore the area if you don't want to stand in line for that long.

Me and Sasha waiting in line at Bao'an Temple. I've got the all-important brochure in hand.

I'm lucky to have a local friend who is passionate about Taiwanese opera to occasionally take me along, explain a few details through the show and let me know if something good is coming up (with a story she can fill me in on beforehand). Most younger Taiwanese folks are not as into opera as Sasha is, but if you have such a friend, see if they'd be willing to introduce you to this art form.

I'm not quite sure why I like Taiwanese opera so much, because while I do enjoy Western opera (Tosca, Aida and The Ring of the Nibelung - especially Rheingold - are favorites), I never managed to get into Beijing opera or really any "Chinese opera" form from China - although I don't mind Sichuanese opera. Generally, though - too much caterwauling, not enough feeling. Too much screeching and clanging, not enough melody.

Taiwanese opera is, however, different. It is more melodic, with less screaming and more music. I find it to be more aurally pleasant overall, rather than the sound of swinging an angry cat at a metal pole.

I like it because it's more interactive - almost democratic. Taiwanese opera, while it has the trappings of a rarefied form of fine art, is really entertainment for the masses. You don't go to fancy theaters in fancy dress like a tourist herded through Beijing and sit quietly while performers wow you. You sit in the open air - much of the time - in jeans, with a corn dog and a bag of guava slices you bought outside - and pay little or nothing to be entertained.

Performers regularly add "au courant" jokes into the libretto: at one point in the opera I saw last night - 薛丁山與樊梨花 - General Xue Dingshan asked what to do: he didn't want to marry the non-Han sorceress Fan Lihua, but he was forced into promising to do so. What could he say that would allow him to please her, stay honest and not break a promise?

"Why don't you like her proposal on Facebook?" Fan Lihua's servant said.

I know - ha ha ha - but we're talking mass entertainment, and in the middle of an opera full of glittering costumes and live music, it was kind of funny. The same servant later on came out wearing big sunglasses as a "disguise" and later still wandered around "drunk" with a tallboy of Asahi in hand.

Performers regularly break the fourth wall, as well. One looked at us after the younger sister of one of the general's wives stormed off and we started clapping, and said "don't you clap for her!" General Xue himself turned to the audience at one point to ask what we would do if we had three wives and couldn't please all of them no matter what decision we made. I wanted to shout "就選一個太太而已!" but held back. In the middle of a scene, performers will regularly wink at the audience, or "shush" them, or ask them for backup.

I like this - it shows Taiwanese opera's roots in entertaining people, not being an art form consumed merely by the upper classes (take a look around any audience for an open-air opera at Bao'an Temple, and your first thought will not be "these are the upper classes". This is what the neighborhood middle-class obasans do for fun in the evening). I don't feel like I have to dress nicely or wait for "intermission" to get a glass of wine. While both are art forms, I feel entirely different at a Taiwanese opera than I did at the opera I saw in Prague (Rigoletto) years ago, or the operas I've seen at the Kennedy Center.

Most Taiwanese operas will begin with a warm-up of sorts - Fu, Lu and Shou (the three gods you see on top of temples) will make an appearance, and you might see 跳加官 (the dancing god in a mask), 喜神 (the two "men" in red robes) and 麻姑 (dancing women with fans). 

There are photos of all of these above. 

You might also see a 財神 (Wealth God - the one who "comes to your door" on Chinese New Year) who might throw out gold-foil wrapped candies from a gold ingot into the crowd.

These aren't the main part of the opera, but it's believed that an opera can't be performed well if these short performances don't take place first. It's like "blessing" the opera, if you will.

The opera we saw - Xue Dingshan and Fan Lihua (薛丁山興樊梨花) was about General Xue - famous for not only his marriage to Fan Lihua, but also for accidentally killing his father (which was depicted in a later scene). Fan Lihua, a non-Han woman who knows magic, is told that her fate is to be Xue Dingshan's wife.

"Her kung fu is better than his" (as explained Sasha), so she manages to capture him, and then sings a song about how she's too shy to tell him she loves him and wants to marry him - within his earshot, of course, and after he's captured her, so she's fooling nobody.

He doesn't want to marry her but the other choice is to fight her again, which he also doesn't want to do, so he swears to marry her. He then tries to escape, but she uses her magic to make his promise to stay come true (he tries to leave but can't due to floods and storms). This is supposed to happen three times, but it was condensed into one for this play.

They marry, but for whatever reason Xue Dingshan doesn't love Fan Lihua (gee, I wonder why!) and "divorces" her (apparently you could divorce a woman in ancient Chinese folk tales by saying "I'm leaving").

Then Xue changes his mind and they re-marry, only to be divorced again when Lihua's godson arrives, and he's almost as old as she is. I'm not sure why this is important, but it's implied she keeps bad company and he leaves again.

Fan Lihua then lures him back by pretending to be dead. At her funeral, Xue Dingshan is in tears, and Fan Lihua "reappears", and they marry yet again, in front of her funeral altar, or whatever you call it in English. Hooray! His other wives, who disliked her before, are happy now because they need her magic and want her back.

Then it's over, everyone comes out to bow, and someone gives General Xue's "old counselor" a giant teddy bear with a pink bow on it, which is hilarious.

Next month: 我愛何東獅, about Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo's "terrible wife who is not tender to her husband", and after that, 紅樓夢, which, if you don't know this classic story, go look it up!


Alton Thompson said...

Thanks for sharing this. I also enjoy Taiwanese opera.

Did you know we have northern and southern styles of performance here? I don't now the details but native musicians can explain.

It's worth mentioning that the repertory of Taiwanese opera is not fixed, as it is with some Chinese opera forms. New Taiwanese operas are created every day. Newer stories increasingly draw inspiration from Taiwan's locales and popular tales.

As Taiwanese opera emphasizes comedy, it's hard to compare it to tragic, grand gestures like 'Rigoletto' and 'Aida'. As a classical musician I'd say some comparable Western genres would be operetta, singspiel, opera buffa, and improvisational comedy--all art forms in which a taste for silliness is a given.

For all that, Taiwanese opera is its own thing. Great fun. I'm sure more visitors to our island will give it a try, thanks to your entertaining introduction!

Jenna Cody said...

Yes, I too think it's nothing like Western opera (or even Beijing opera for that matter).

I'd compare it to musicals, especially ones meant to be updated with current jokes like "Shear Madness" and "Nunsense".

I'm hoping to come across Taiwanese operas written from local stories - most of what I've seen have been folk tales from China. My friend who's really into it would probably be extremely interested in opera based on more local stories, so I hope she tells me when one comes up.

I do know that it used to be a lot more popular: a generation ago Taiwan only had three TV stations and Taiwanese opera would play on at least one, if not more, during prime time hours, around 6pm ("so students could watch it"). Now, with hundreds of channels, it no longer plays on the top channels and is more often shown in off hours. At the opera the general age of the audience was older, or younger people with their older parents, or grandparents taking grandkids (who I hope as a result will develop a taste for it). There were some - but not many - younger folks. That's why I feel so lucky to have a friend my age who is into it. Not many foreigners get that chance.

James Lande said...

Thank you Jenna for this appreciation of Taiwan opera or, as I encountered it many years ago, street theater. My post today on this subject has a few old photos of a performance at a temple in Taipei over 40 years ago. See: