Opela, a sub-genre of traditional Taiwanese opera, had been viewed as “o-be-pe-pe-le”, meaning doing perfunctorily. Its mixture of pop and foreign cultural elements in the performance had long been criticized, and its performance style was denied in the name of “preserving the essence of tradition”. However, some controversial elements in opela, such as Japanese martial arts and costumes, can be traced to the performance in the period of in-house Taiwanese opera, a boom time that has been glorified by both theatre historians and practitioners. Moreover, after the millennium, the performance of opela is recognized and included in the mainstream aesthetics in Taiwan. Many intellectuals and activists promote an agenda that celebrates local culture, seeking to revive this once controversial genre. In this essay, I examine the genealogy of opela, how it moves between cycles of boom and bust, and how some of its performance features are reconstructed in the contemporary theatre.
In this essay, I discuss the subgenre of classical Taiwanese opera (a.k.a. gezaixi), opela, a traditional performance genre with a mixture of pop and foreign cultural elements in the performance. Opela had long been neglected even though it has existed at least since the 1950s. During 1998 to 1999 when I was conducting fieldwork on opela, most gezaixi practitioners simply informed me that opela was o-be-pe-pe-le (meaning “doing perfunctorily” in Taiwanese), a standard answer that one could easily find in the general social perception and the limited gezaixi publications of the time. However, opela began to gain public attention in Taiwan after the millennium. Its first entrance in the government-sponsored relay outdoor performances in 2001 indicated the official recognition of its legitimacy. I examine howopela, which had been regarded as an eccentric entertainment for the past few decades and practiced on the island at the grassroots level, was originally a product of the commercial practice during the golden in-house era of Taiwanese opera around early 1950s, and how, after the millennium, the academics began to reorient the discourse of traditional theatre, connecting opela to the Taiwanese national sentiments.
Opela‘s cycle of boom and bust reveals how social perception of a genre changes with the change of political climate. Taiwan was a Japanese colony, 1895-1945. When Taiwan returned to Chinese rule under the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP), Taiwanese itself again became a second language, rendering all native Taiwanese cultural expressions secondary ones. This was especially the case after the CNP was defeated on the mainland in the civil war with the Communists in 1949, and the CNP fled to Taiwan. The association of opela with the derogatory “o-be-pe-pe-le” reflects the semi-colonized experience of Taiwan under CNP rule, as Mandarin and Chinese cultural expressions were prioritized. State patronage had gone exclusively to the Mandarin-language form of jingxi (Beijing opera) throughout the early 1990s in order to enhance the nation’s claims of legitimacy over China, albeit in exile, leaving the rest of the theatrical forms to compete for financial support from non-governmental sources. The democratization of Taiwan (especially the lifting of the martial law in 1987) accelerates the “decolonization” of the Chinese chauvinistic cultural policy. With the rise of Taiwanese consciousness, gezaixi (Taiwanese opera) seemed to replace jingxi (Beijing opera) as the National opera. At a time when the issue of independence or reunion dominates Taiwan’s relation with China, the intellectuals further sought to purge the image of opela and some collaborated with the performers, reworking and reinterpreting its performance conventions to highlight the Japanese colonial legacy in opela as a way of undermining the cultural linkage with China.
The Negative Association of Opela Prior to the Late 1990s and Its Cause
Today, opela is common in the open-air street performance in Taiwan, (often staged for religious purpose). Normally a gezaixi troupe stages old-style ( gulu) plays in the afternoon, featuring historical period plays or legendary tales with traditional costumes and forms of music, whereas in the evening opela is staged. Opela combines narratives of martial arts fantasy and melodrama, featuring themes of love and vengeance. Its costumes, music and movement embrace a mixture of intercultural and pop culture elements. It is thus not uncommon to see a character wearing a Japanese kimono or American cowboy suit and singing a mid-twentieth century song in a seventeenth century Chinese setting in the theatre of opela.
The music of opela incorporates Western music, Japanese songs, contemporary Mandarin and Taiwanese pop songs, and so on. The musical instruments extend from traditional gongs and drums,erhu (a two-stringed, bowed fiddle), sanxian (a two-stringed, plucked lute), and suona (trumpet), to Western drum kit, electric guitar, saxophone, and electronic piano. In some of the opela shows, the incidental music for the Chinese wedding ceremony is Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”, while for a romantic scene we sometimes hear the electronic piano playing “Moon River” as the background music (Hsieh 2002, 159).
It was the older generation, who had received Japanese education in Taiwan, who pronounced “opera” as “opela”. However, as the years have passed and with a new generation who did not speak Japanese, this layer of meaning gradually has vanished from most people’s memory. Instead, “o-be-pe-pe-le ” became the dominant definition for opela . The reason behind this change of association and conception has a lot to do with the Nationalist’s cultural policy and state ideology, which had regulated Taiwan during the marital law era (1945-1987). After the Nationalist Party lost the civil war to the Communist Party on the mainland and retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the Taiwanese experienced semi-colonization. Although they had previously received a thoroughly Japanese education, the Taiwanese found their voices lost again unless they began learning Mandarin, which became the “national language”. They also encountered the disparity in the distribution of economic and political resources between the natives and the mainlanders. The fact that native Taiwanese spoke Japanese was dismissed as slavish, and their inability to speak Mandarin was used as a pretext to disqualify them from official posts in favor of the mainlanders. Fluency in Mandarin became a mark of superiority (Su 1992, 49).
The Taiwanese literary field in the 1950s echoed the state ideology of the time, producing an abundance of combat and anti-communist literature. Meanwhile, “Chineseness” was strongly advocated, rendering native cultural forms as insignificant and marginalized practices. “Recover the Mainland” became a slogan on the island, and songs such as “I Love China” became familiar to everyone. Students had to learn extensive Chinese history and geography at the expense of education about Taiwan. Policies such as restrictions on vernacular TV and radio programs, and prohibitions on speaking dialects, labeled Taiwanese local languages and culture backward and indecent (Chang 1997, 116).
In this political and cultural climate, Mandarin-language jingxi (Beijing opera) had been strongly promoted as the “National opera” by the Nationalists, whereas vernacular drama such as gezaixi(Taiwanese opera) had been marginalized as “local” and “primitive”, condemned as an entertainment associated with the uncultivated lower class. Thus the Beijing opera style was constructed as the norm for traditional performances in Taiwan. The first history of gezaixi was not published until 1988 in Taiwan, and it devoted only a few sentences to opela, which is described as “flippant and perfunctory” (Zeng 1988, 67). Due to this double marginal position, the history of opela has been blurry since the term is orally used and the relevant materials and research are very limited. Theatre scholars prior to the late 1990s dismissed it as “slapdash and thus insignificant” (Zeng 1988, 67) and “slapdash and does not follow the norm” (Lin & Liu 1990, 119).
Today the most common venue for gezaixi is on the street or by the temple. Professional troupes generally stage “gulu” or old-style plays in the afternoon, featuring military history narratives modeled on Beijing opera, traditional costumes, traditional musical instruments, and more codified movements.Opela is staged in the evening, featuring swordsmen romance, more natural stage movements, a fusion of multi-ethnic music, and sporadic use of Japanese and Western costumes (Hsieh 2002, 158). Gulutheatre, due to its proximity to Beijing opera, was valorized as “authentic”, whereas opela, with its hybrid nature, had been blamed for causing gezaixi‘s “uncultured” image (Lin & Liu 1990, 119). However, opela seems a more popular form compared to gulu, attracting more spectators.
What exactly does tradition mean? As elsewhere, people in Taiwan would like to believe that it is something constant and consistent, and scholars have come to agree that tradition and history are often invented to construct nationalist sentiments and national identity (Hobsbawm 1983, 4). Beijing opera practitioners in Taiwan prided themselves on preserving the Chinese tradition and cultural essence, and this became more acute after 1966 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and began to question and demolish the “four olds”; that is old thoughts, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Later in the same year the government of Taiwan—then called the Republic of China (ROC)—initiated “the Chinese Cultural Renaissance” to counter the Cultural Revolution on the mainland, with the revival of the National opera singled out specifically as an anti-communist weapon. For the Nationalist regime in Taiwan, maintaining Beijing opera in its absolutely “traditional” form distinguished the regime from the Communists and symbolized that it had inherited the authentic Chinese culture and thus validated its legitimacy over the mainland (Zhou 1995, 58). At a time when Beijing opera on the mainland was under experimentation, and being “revolutionized” into contemporary plays to depict the lives of peasants, workers and soldiers under socialism, the style of Beijing opera prior to 1949 in Taiwan thus “became a symbol whose meaning was charged with the emotions tied to the loss of the homeland and the continued resistance against the enemy” (Guy 2005, 108).
Because “Chineseness” was officially heightened in Taiwan, gezaixi was ignored and even oppressed despite its vitality in Taiwanese society. For example, in the Local Theatre Contest, an annual island-wide event for gezaixi and puppet theatre, for decades the judging committee had consisted primarily of CNP officials who did not understand Taiwanese dialects or the performance styles of these genres. Consequently, the judges applied the performance style of Beijing opera as a standard, and the evaluation was also based on the ideology of the play (Su 1992, 55). As Beijing opera in Taiwan was made to preserve the “tradition” in its pre-1949 style, “tradition” became a moral issue as well as an aesthetic norm in the society. The changes gezaixi practitioners had made over time, especially encapsulated in opela , challenged and destabilized this norm. Opela , the subgenre of gezaixi , became marginalized and condemned for corrupting the image of gezaixi .
Both the performers and the spectators inevitably internalized such a cultural hierarchy, which then shaped their aesthetic perceptions. Beijing opera, with state patronage and endorsement, had been affirmed as part of a historic and aristocratic culture, while gezaixi, as well as many “vernacular” performing arts on the island, survived mainly in the form of low-budget productions with unsatisfactory audio and visual qualities. Thus an ideal model for “traditional” arts was constructed and fortified according to the image of Beijing opera, the orthodox cultural form. The Chinese-chauvinist inculcation was so successful that many gezaixi performers felt disrespected for their occupation and suffered from inferiority. It was no wonder, then, that they discriminated against opela, as it carried a stigma for many performers. Among the 26 gezaixi troupes in Taipei that I observed in 1998-1999, two refused to stage opela in their nightly shows, and the members and managers were very proud of their persistence in playing the guluxi (old-style plays) despite the trend. The traditional, old-style guluxiretained more features of the superior Beijing opera. By performing Beijing opera imitations, Taiwanese opera players subconsciously ascend from their disenfranchised and marginalized position to a position of “legitimacy”.
Ironically, while scholarship prior to the 1990s condemned opela and its hybrid practice, it was highly praised the in-house theatre period (late 1940s to the mid-1960s) as the golden era of gezaixi , without giving attention to the fact that practitioners in the commercial theatre had already began to experiment with and engage foreign elements as a means to rejuvenate the theatre and attract audiences. Several controversial elements in opela today, such as Japanese martial arts and costumes and the use of sunglasses, can be traced to the performance in the period of in-house Taiwanese opera, a boom time that has been glorified by both theatre historians and practitioners. After World War II, gezaixi in Taiwan experienced a prosperous commercial period and experienced a boom for nearly two decades. During this golden era, the nighttime shows of gezaixi intentionally adopted Japanese elements such as costumes, music, and fighting arts from the popular Japanese films. Soon afterwards, cowboy costumes, pistols and duels inspired by Hollywood movies were also introduced to gezaixi . Popular music was blended in, with a mixture of Western and Chinese accompanying musical instruments.
As performer Liao Qiongzhi recalled: “After the Japanese films landed in Taiwan, [Taiwanese opera] stage directors turned to the Japanese films for different martial art inspirations. He would borrow the Japanese martial art and insert it into a Chinese story, or sometimes the setting of the play was in Japan” (Ji 1999, 88). This was also the case with the popular piece, Sakura War, during the in-house commercial theatre period. In the story, the Chinese warriors attack the Sakura (cherry blossom) Kingdom, that is, Japan, and encounter three Japanese princesses on the battlefield and fall in love with them. The princesses make their first entrance by wearing beautiful kimonos and singing a Japanese song together. The scene creates an exotic and impressive spectacle, and the play became a tremendous success (Wang 1999).
Fig. 1: In-house gezaixi, 1960s. Xiao Mao as a foreign prince; note the turban. Photograph courtesy of Xiao.
Opela‘s costume has developed a unique semiotic vocabulary since the period of indoor commercial theatre. For instance, a turban is used to indicate the wearer’s foreign identity. In the story of opela, foreigners are usually Tibetans and Mongolians, that is, ethnically non-Han people. Typically, the costumes make no attempt at historical accuracy; rather, turbans are used to indicate generic exoticism (see figure 1). Similarly, the use of sunglasses is a simplified extension of the use of mask, and it is used frequently since the story of opela usually involves the concealing of identity. The conflict in many of the plays comes from the double identities of main characters, who mask themselves to exercise justice or commit a crime. The choice of whether to use a mask or sunglasses is the actor’s, though sunglasses are more common since they are more convenient to wear and less expensive. While some have criticized the emergence of modern accoutrements in a traditional theater as a desperate means to cater to the public and a signal of the decadence of tradition (Lin & Liu 1990, 119), the appearance of sunglasses as early as the 1960s, as shown in a photo taken in around 1966 in the golden era of gezaixi (see figure 2), suggests that this code has its own “tradition”.
Fig. 2: In-house gezaixi, 1960s. A character concealing his identity by wearing sunglasses. Photograph courtesy of Zheng Jinfeng.
The Change of Political Climate, the Change of Performance Aesthetics
Even though opela was a popular form in the commercial theatre of the 1950s, the legitimacy of its claim to tradition was denied because its performance style did not conform to the Beijing opera standard. For a long time, the widely-accepted authentic form of gezaixi was the old-style play due to its relative resemblance to Beijing opera. However, the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987 saw an increasingly democratic environment, and the meaning of tradition has been re-considered and redefined. People began to adopt a more liberal and open view in evaluating cultural productions and to acknowledge previously discredited forms such as opela. While in the martial law era, popular gezaixistyles or forms were dismissed from the realm of tradition and authenticity, the post-martial-law era saw their inclusion in “tradition”. Tradition became a more diverse notion, with increasing emphasis on indigenousness. Therefore, scholars began to call for a judgment-free examination of opela. Qiu Kunliang (1999, 20-21), for example, has appealed to opela‘s connection to the golden era of Taiwanese theatre (1949-1960s):
We should treat opela as one of the directions of traditional gezaixi, unless we are to deny the gezaixi of the in-house stage. “Opela” is equivalent to its original meaning “opera”, which is a performance style instead of a synonym of absurdity and monkey tricks. Opelaconsists of Chinese and foreign performance elements, absorbing nutrients from the new drama, musical, cinema, and Western music. It develops a performance network that crosses the border of traditional theatre. We can evaluate its theatrical effects in terms of scripts, performers, and stage effects, but it is unnecessary to deny it as a performance genre on moral grounds or in the name of tradition.
Further, Scholar Lin Heyi (1999, 26) attempted to trace the development of opela to the Japanese legacy of the Imperial Subject Movement, a colonial assimilation project, in her project report “The Administration and Performance Activities of Outdoor Gezaixi Troupes in Taipei”. In my M.A. thesis and a following essay, “‘Opela‘: Its Definition and Historical Development”, I adopted this view and elaborated Lin’s argument by discussing the colonial remnants in the performance and repertoire ofopela today (Hsieh 2002). The Japanese assimilation project suppressed performing arts in Taiwan, banning the cultural expression of Chinese heritage, and therefore only performances of Western style and Japanese style were allowed. I argue that the restrictions imposed by the colonial government accidentally provided a site for practitioners of traditional theatre to experience new types of performance (that is, Western spoken drama and Japanese drama) and the possibility of a mixed form.
The emergence of a more liberal view on opela at the turn of the century was not by chance. The lifting both of martial law and of the previous ban on visits to the mainland, both in 1987, was a turning point in Taiwanese national awareness, bonding the people on the island together and facilitating the growing of a national consciousness different from “being Chinese”. This awareness was heated up in 1996 when the Taiwanese became able to vote for their president directly for the first time in their history. The presidential election gave the people a sense of empowerment, and the democratic experience served to further distinguish the people on the island from the people on the mainland. Thus the term “New Taiwanese” emerged as an inclusive identity to cover all the people on the island (Bosco 1994; Wachman 1994; Brown 2004). The “New Taiwanese” awareness soared to its peak in 2000, when the ruling Nationalist Party ceased to govern for the first time, with the native-born Chen Shuibian from the Democratic Progressive Party winning the presidential election. With burgeoning Taiwanese nationalism, gezaixi, the only “made in Taiwan” theatrical genre, came under the spotlight, and some people began to consider its indigenous characteristics and advantages.
Moreover, in the age of globalization, many countries faced the crisis of cultural homogenization, experiencing particularly the anxiety of being Americanized, and endeavored to look for and magnify their unique local features. As Taiwan is confronted with the impacts of Western and Japanese cultures in the process of self-exploration and indigenization, it suffers, as Appadurai puts it, an “alternative fear to Americanization”, namely, an anxiety about Chinesization. For a small polity like Taiwan, “there is always a fear of cultural absorption by polities of larger scale, especially those that are nearby” (1996, 32). The identity of Taiwan is therefore torn between not only “the West” and “Tradition”, but also “China” and “Taiwan”. Consequently, there began a search for the authentic Taiwanese characteristics distinct from mainland Chinese influence. As a result, opela made its first entrance on the official stage in the joint performances of gezaixi sponsored by the National Center for Traditional Arts in 2001. The Chunmei Gezaixi Troupe staged an opela play The Bandit Named Black Eagle (feizei heiying). The event demonstrated that opela’s legitimacy as a form of performance had gained governmental endorsement. Within a few years, opela changed from undesirable to desirable; the term seemed to become a hot topic. In newspapers in the following years, many theatre productions were touted as “opela“. For example, titles such as “Xiuqin Gezaixi Troupe Stages Authentic Opela” and “Chen Meiyun’s Lujiacun: with Opela Flavor” emerged in the newspapers. A search for the term “opela” from the database of United Daily News yields 32 entries from 1951 to 2000, in contrast to 110 entries from 2000 to 2005. The earliest entry is from a play entitled Xi Mayi, published in 1993, in which a line goes: “Nowadays no one cares about gezaixi. The performances you can see in the street are either opela or the strip show” (Chen 1993, 43).
The reason behind this change can be attributed first to the two sides of “hybridity”. The hybrid nature of opela was the chief reason that it had been considered intolerably rebellious and unruly. In accord with the Taiwanese people’s changing perception of their own identity, the emphasis on “one hundred percent purity” in aesthetics changed and engendered a different reading. Also, the growing freedom of speech in the post-martial law era produced a multitude of voices and enabled access to a wealth of information. The Taiwanese came to realize that the island had been under the influence of not only the Chinese Qing court, and later Han immigrants, but also the aborigines (who have been on the island before the arrival of the Han immigrants from China), pirates of the Ming dynasty, and the Japanese empire, and they thus came to acknowledge and embrace the hybridity of their identity. Similarly, in the field of performing arts, some began to propose openness and tolerance in their appeal for opela. “Recently some theatre researchers began to view opela as an authentic form of gezaixi“, Teri Silvio observes. “In this new discourse, the ‘hybridity’ of opela provides an opportunity to re-affirm the Taiwanese culture, which is tolerant instead of being exclusive” (2005, 11).
Another reason for the rise of opela is that its performance brings the colonial past to the present. The presence in opela of the samurai duel, kimono costumes, and Japanese songs indicates a period of Taiwan’s history when the island was both governed and culturally dominated by the Japanese, 1895-1945. The colonial remnants embodied in the performance of opela invoke a chapter of Taiwanese history that for many years had purposely been silenced. Many historians call attention to the collective amnesia the Taiwanese have moreover experienced about their later history under the CNP totalitarian rule before the lifting of martial law in 1987 (Phillips 2003). The 50 years of Japanese rule was a taboo subject in Taiwan, and, if ever mentioned, was merely dismissed as “the remaining poison of the Japanese imperialism”.
With the lifting of martial law and the acceleration of democratization, this long-buried history was finally revealed and addressed in Taiwan. Moreover, the increasingly heightened Taiwanese consciousness rendered the Japanese colonial history and its legacy a significant marker to differentiate the Taiwanese from the Chinese. Taiwan’s colonial experience now facilitates the ongoing definition of a Taiwanese identity (Ching 2001). Therefore, endeavors have been made to dig out, retrieve, reconstruct and reclaim the lost memories. Likewise, the opela phenomenon in the new century is a response within the realm of the performing arts to the trend of reconstructing Taiwanese history. The legacy of the Japanese administration in the performance of opela today reveals the imprint of the colonial history.
The hybrid performance in opela was a site that allowed the performers to test the traditional form and adjust to modernity independently and continuously. The grassroots’ raw practices led to a negative perception of opela, yet today people have come to acquire a different view of the genre. With soaring Taiwanese native awareness in the post-martial law era (1987-present), the legitimacy of Beijing opera in Taiwan came under challenge. As the social and cultural climate gradually turned to “Taiwaneseness”, the indigenous gezaixi came to represent authentic Taiwanese culture and came to the forefront (Chang 1997, 128).
After the Millennium
It was only after the year 2000, with a proliferation of discourses on opela and the first entrance of anopela production in a government-sponsored gezaixi festival in 2001, that Taiwanese academics treat the performance of opela as material for postcolonial research and sources for artistic creation, and consciously use its hybrid elements. The participation of the intellectuals added a different flavor to this once grassroots performance style and provided another possible direction for traditional theatre. Chunmei Taiwanese Opera Troupe’s Youth Dream, for example, is a collaboration between the gezaixipractitioners and the intellectuals. Chunmei Taiwanese Opera Troupe is a professional theatre company that normally performs for temple events in southern Taiwan. Traditional sung drama in Taiwan is an improvisational theatre. The actors develop the story and the characters based on an orally given outline, and the musicians play from a multitude of established tunes. However, the troupe has actively invited various playwrights, directors and composers to design for their main stage productions. Youth Dream, which premiered in the summer of 2005, describes the aspirations and endeavors of the “New Theatre” or spoken drama practitioner, Zhang Weixian, during his youth. The theme and setting of the play are very different from those of the usual gezaixi repertoire in Taiwan. Bringing the performance elements of opela into full play, the staging of the new subject was made charming and effective.
Freedom of love is one of the themes of the play. New Theatre practitioners in the time of Zhang Weixian often advocated breaking social class and fighting for freedom of love in their plays. On stage, the “plays within a play” Zhang Weixian performs, such as A Doll’s House and The Groom, are about female liberation and independence of love. Backstage Zhang gets caught in the same situation. His beloved Mitsuko is the daughter of a Japanese official. They face a similar dilemma in their relationship, and both have marriages that have been arranged by their parents. No matter how frequently Zhang acts out and advocates the idea of freedom of love, paradoxically he can never realize this ideal in reality. After a few years of solitude and pining for love, when he finally completes his study in Japan and returns home, what waits for him is the wedding of his beloved with someone else.
Fig. 3: Zhang Weixian at Mitsuko’s wedding in Youth Dream. Photograph courtesy of Chunmei Taiwanese Opera Troupe, Fengshan.
Stories in gezaixi usually feature a lovelorn couple, and this is an especially marked feature of opelanarratives. Further, an appealing gezaixi performance in Taiwan requires not only beautiful voices and stage presence of the main actors, but also the amusing performance of the jovial clown. In the case ofYouth Dream, the playwright chose to use a narration familiar to the spectators, that is, a story centering on the romance of the male and female protagonists and weaving in the comic relief of the clown A-shun. Yet the play is more than merely a romance. The playwright inserted a profound theme into the melodramatic story, introducing both the New Theatre pioneer and Taiwan’s colonial history.
Youth Dream is different from typical opela, which has been criticized for its random and spontaneous mixture of various alien elements. Even with the story usually set in the pre-modern society, for example, modern music and costumes are typically used in the performances—which often appears illogical to most spectators. Yet Youth Dream is set in Taiwan during the Japanese governance, when the new culture and the old overlapped and collided, and it talks about the “New Theatre”, a new form of performance and a pioneering cultural personage. Under such circumstances, the use of pop music, Japanese songs, kimono, Western dress, and other foreign elements have narrative justification. What makes this production stand out from other opela performances is perhaps the participation of the intellectuals in its production. In Taiwan, the word intellectual may simply refer to people who have received higher education. But in this and other cases related to the theatre in Taiwan, the term might be considered to function in a similar manner to the Western concept. People who are interested in and participated actively in traditional theatre in Taiwan are usually the ones who take an active role in political and cultural debate, considering that traditional theatre is in decline. Those who do it not for a living but for inserting certain messages or for reforming theatre to connect to a younger generation certainly fall into the category as “intellectuals”.
Youth Dream was composed by two playwrights: Wu Xiuying and Mufei. Ms. Wu is an elementary school teacher, who had written several award-winning plays before, all on figures of Taiwanese history such as the founder of the Taiwanese Communist Party, Xie Xuehong. Wu’s co-playwright, Mufei, is a gezaixi fan and often posts reviews and performance information on the gezaixi websites. The collaboration of Wu Xiuying and Mufei exemplifies a recent trend in the gezaixi productions: a group of artists who come from various backgrounds contribute new ideas to gezaixi.
Fig. 4: Advertising poster, The Venetian Twins. Photograph courtesy of the Chunfeng Troupe.
Another example is The Venetian Twins, premiered in 2007 and produced by Taiwan Chunfeng Troupe. Taiwan Chunfeng is an amateur theatre company consisting of young gezaixi fans. The ensemble members had been gezaixi club members while studying at university who founded the troupe after graduation. These young people attempted to instill new ideas to the gezaixi theatre by trying out various possibilities. The troupe’s successful adaptation of the Italian comedy, The Venetian Twins, shows that they are versed in both the Taiwanese and the Western performance traditions. The stock characters and plot of identity-concealing are common features of both opela and Italian comedy, and thus the adaptation could easily connect to the local audiences. The production team also utilized the spontaneous and playful spirit of opela and employed up-dated cultural elements such as the costumes of cosplay. 1 The show brought fresh breeze to gezaixi theatre and thus was nominated to the Taishin Performing Arts Award of the year in Taiwan. Apparently, some of opela‘s performance features are now consciously reworked in the larger Taiwanese theatre scene of today. While many elements ofopela are the results of the experiments practiced by the grassroots practitioners to cope with modernity, such intellectuals and activists promoting an agenda that celebrates local culture, seeking to revive this once controversial genre.
I was not sure if it was a good idea when I began my project on opela in late 1998. Relevant publications were very scarce and many practitioners discouraged me from doing it, saying it was an insignificant and shameful practice and therefore not worth bothering. With gezaixi and opela moving from the periphery to the center after 2000, I began to hear some performers talking about what the “authentic” opela is supposed to be. I could not help feeling amused and amazed at how great the change in the cultural environment had been in less than a decade. The revival of opela and the debate on its authenticity implies an attempt to treat tradition in an ahistorical manner, “as if [it] contained within [itself] from [its] moment of origin, some fixed and unchanging meaning or value” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998, 76). Or, as Hobsbawm (1983, 4) has eloquently stated, such an invention of tradition “is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past”. The shifting of aesthetic norms shows how the making of identities affects the construction of the past, a past from which we consciously select some elements and narratives and repress others.
Thus we see how the cycle of boom and bust in gezaixi theatre coincides with politics and social sentiments. Opela experienced a commercial boom during the in-house period (late 1940s- mid 1960s) of gezaixi. As gezaixi lost its market values in the indoor theatre, it was then treated as a lowbrow entertainment on the street. Cultural policy at the time worsened the situation of gezaixi, which promoted Beijing opera exclusively. Opela, the subgenre of gezaixi, was condemned and dismissed for its unbridled and hybrid presentation. However, the surge of Taiwanese national awareness cast a new light on opela. Intellectuals began to participate in the productions of Taiwanese opera and further play with the elements of opela consciously. Opela has come to represent the hybrid nature of Taiwanese identity and gradually become the embodiment of Taiwanese history and culture.