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An Eye-Opening Opera Experience (TAIPEI Quarterly 2024 Summer Vol.36)

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Post date:2024-06-11


TAIPEI #36 (2024 Summer)

An Eye-Opening Opera Experience
TaipeiEYE: Enter a World of High-Pitch Singing and Acrobatic Dance

Text Han Cheung
Photos TaiepiEYE, Vision

From roadside glove puppetry during temple festivals to indigenous dances at cultural fairs and Chinese orchestral recitals at the National Theater & Concert Hall, opportunities to enjoy Taiwan's diverse traditional performing arts can be found around every corner in Taipei. A longstanding local  favorite is traditional opera, and both the Taiwanese gezaixi (Taiwanese opera) and Peking varieties have flourished on the island for more than a century.

Make sure you arrive early for an opera performance at TaipeiEYE, as the activities start an hour before the actual curtain time of 8pm. Dubbed Taiwan's first "tourist theater" showcasing the island's myriad traditional arts when it opened in 2002, the venue provides visitors with an up-close look at performers applying their makeup and hairpieces, as well as the chance to try on colorful costumes and accessories for photo ops. Live music, artifact displays, and craft activities are also available.

6▲Performer applying makeup

After a four-year pandemic hiatus, TaipeiEYE finally reopened in February 2024 with three action-packed, visually dazzling Peking opera productions in a row. The 60min shows run every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with subtitles in Chinese, English, Korean, and Japanese shown simultaneously beside the stage. Staff who speak the foreign languages are available on site.

Located in the imposing Taiwan Cement Building, TaipeiEYE was launched by the prominent Koo family, whose passion for Peking opera dates back to 1915 when Koo Hsien-jung inaugurated the Taiwan Novel Hall in the city's historic Dadaocheng area. Unfortunately, the theater was destroyed in a US airstrike during World War II.

More than four decades later, the late Koo Chen-fu resumed his father's mission. Through the C.F. Koo Foundation, he revived the Novel Hall in 1997 and founded the Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theatre. The troupe's members also perform at TaipeiEYE, which aims to promote not just opera but also other traditional Chinese and Taiwanese art forms to foreign visitors.

The lobby outside the main stage at TaipeiEYE is teeming with activity on a Friday night. At the activity booth, adults are making lino prints of auspicious images while children are coloring intricate Peking opera makeup onto a blank face on paper. Further in, visitors are trying on different opera costumes – including various beards and weapons – while a musician plucks soothing notes on a guzheng (Chinese zither). Two performers are applying makeup to their own faces, while a third offers the service to audience members.

Peking opera first became popular in Taiwan around the turn of the 20th century during the 50-year period of Japanese rule, and locals such as Koo Hsien-jung would regularly invite troupes from China to perform. Taiwanese gezaixi, on the other hand, developed locally from the opera styles brought by Han Chinese settlers from China's southern Fujian Province, emerging in the late 1800s as a distinct art form.

Both styles have seen their fortunes rise and fall due to changes in the political and cultural climate, and although local interest in traditional opera has waned in the past few decades, a number of troupes continue to keep the craft alive and relevant. While TaipeiEYE focuses on opera as its main program, it will periodically showcase other traditional arts such as indigenous dance, lion dance, puppetry, and acrobatics.

7▲At TaipeiEye, learn about traditional puppetry as well

Tonight's show is Legend of the White Snake, based on a Tang Dynasty folktale about a thousand-year-old snake who assumes the form of a beautiful woman and falls in love with a handsome young scholar. A small crowd gathers around the main actress as she slowly transforms herself into character, first painting her face and then painstakingly putting on the hair pieces and headgear with the help of an assistant.

4▲Peking opera, Legend of the White Snake

The first half of Legend of the White Snake focuses on storytelling and dialogue in the artform's customary high-pitched voicings. There are minimal props, as the tension is driven by miming and dance-acting as well as the dramatic soundtrack provided by the accompanying orchestra. Things shift into high gear as the final battle ensues, skilled performers taking the stage by storm in a vibrant, eye-catching whirlwind of choreographed combat and acrobatics. The audience is moved to cheering and applauding with every impressive move.

5▲Peking opera, Monkey King

TaipeiEYE's brand reopening in February highlighted the Peking opera classic Monkey King, featuring the mischievous titular character who wreaks havoc upon the heavens. It then presented Monkey King Battles the Cave Rats, where the reformed trickster protects Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang from evil spirits on their journey to retrieve scriptures from India.

3▲Taiwanese opera, Chen San and Wu Niang 

In May the program switched to Taiwanese opera with Chen San and Wu Niang, a love story set in southern China. Presented by the Shintrun Taiwanese Opera Troupe, this production was comparatively dialogue-heavy, with performers relying more on their acting and singing skills than acrobatic prowess. In June, Legend of the White Snake is back on stage, along with another Peking opera featuring the Monkey King titled The Leopard.

After each show, audience members can pose for photos and chat with the performers in the lobby, and many linger long after the finale.
TaipeiEYE 臺北戲棚
🚩 113, Sec. 2, Zhongshan N. Rd., Zhongshan Dist.
📞 (02) 2568-2677

C.F. Koo Foundation 辜公亮文教基金會
Dadaocheng 大稻埕
Koo Chen-fu 辜振甫
Koo Hsien-jung 辜顯榮
National Theater & Concert Hall 國家兩廳院
Shintrun Taiwanese Opera Troupe 薪傳歌仔戲劇團
Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theatre 台北新劇團
Taiwan Novel Hall 臺灣新舞台


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