FYI SOUTH Magazine, August 2006


--- Written and Photos by Richard Matheson Translated by Annie Liu

For the first-timer, Taiwanese Opera can be a bit much: An involved story, elaborately costumed and painted characters, pulsing lights, a cacophony of instruments, ear-piercing shrieks...
Fortunately, there are various stage conventions. A rudimentary understanding of roles, stage gestures, props, and storylines can lead to a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of this indigenous art form.

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"). These can be further divided into many sub-roles, for example when the female lead is a sad female ("ku dan," easily spotted as a woman who's always crying). Costumes and makeup are often good indicators of roles. Gender, however, is not. Simply being a woman does not necessarily mean the actress is portraying a woman.

Gestures and props. Simply knowing that most gestures have a meaning opens up a new facet of the opera. Hands clasped behind the back indicate bravery; wringing one's hands expresses worry; walking in circles represents a long journey; and acrobatics indicate battle. Props are simple-carrying a whip means the actor is riding a horse.

Story. Obviously, knowing the story makes understanding easier. Most troupes perform well-known stories, and asking enthusiasts is a good way of finding out the key points.
Taiwan's leading Taiwanese opera troupe is Ming Hwa Yuan, who have performed overseas many times. Details of upcoming performances can be found on their website, www.twopera.com