Written by Jasmine Yu-Hsing Chen.
Image credit: 國立傳統藝術中心.
In Taiwan, outdoor Taiwanese opera performances next to temples have been essential to Taiwanese religious traditions for decades. Most troupes adhere to the etiquette of performing “classical plays for matinees and opeilas for evening performances.” Unlike performances in the afternoon, which are mostly classical repertoires based on books and legends, evening performances are always energetic. With an electronic piano and jazz drums accompaniment, the actors on stage sing pop songs and dress in shining sequin robes, fancy suits, or colourful Japanese costumes. This hybrid performance style has been called “opeila” (oo-phiat-a), which is phonetically adapted from the Japanese pronunciation of “opera” (o-pe-ra オペラ) in Taiwanese. This unique subgenre of Taiwanese opera has livened memories in numerous Taiwanese people and is one of the most concrete testimonies of vital Taiwanese culture.
The Origin of Taiwanese Opera
The origin of Taiwanese opera (also known as kua-a-hi or gezaixi) is intertwined with the flourishing market of commercial playhouses in colonial Taiwan. The Japanese colonial period spanned from 1895 and ended in 1945. Colonial modernity, urbanization, and economic growth enabled Taiwanese people to engage in and consume entertainment. Of these, the commercial playhouses created a platform for diverse performances and provided an inclusive environment for fresh, innovative theatrical forms, such as Taiwanese opera. Local Taiwanese actors learned sophisticated performances, costumes, makeup, and repertoires performed in other well-established Chinese operas. By including new elements, Taiwanese actors embellished Taiwanese folksongs and dances in their performances. In particular, Taiwanese opera developed rapidly in commercial playhouses because it uses the local Holo (Hokkien) language. Moreover, catering to the audience’s preference for love stories and lower ticket prices was essential in the success of Taiwanese opera.
The Origin of Opeila during the Japanese Colonial Period
Taiwanese opera has undergone a fundamental transition since 1937 when the Japanese government systematically launched the Japanisation policy (also known as the imperialization policy or kominkan movement). During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Japanese government began actively controlling and censoring Chinese theatrical performances. Although Taiwanese opera was and still is, formed by locals in Taiwan, its costumes and performance conventions were adapted from Chinese operas, so the art was mistakenly viewed as a Chinese legacy. Furthermore, the Japanisation policy required all troupes in Taiwan to perform repertoires highlighting Japanese imperial ideals.
Due to the censorship and other various restrictions enforced by the Japanisation policy, Taiwanese opera troupes had to change their performances to survive. Numerous historical Chinese tales were revised into stories positively representing Japanese imperialism. Some Japanese period drama shows were also adapted from Taiwanese operas with shared titles, such as Tange Sazen, Kurama Tengu, and Miyamoto Musashi. Japanese period drama highlighted the fight between good and evil, coincidentally aligning with traditional Chinese operas’ themes. As such, imitating Japanese period drama was a convenient way for Taiwanese opera to cope with drama censorship. However, since Taiwanese audiences were not accustomed to these changes, performances under the Japanisation policy became something like a stowaway game. Actors still secretly performed the new Japanese-style shows in the style of Taiwanese opera, and once the police patrol passed, actors changed back into costumes traditional to Taiwanese opera.
Many Taiwanese opera troupes also publicly advertised performances as “new drama” (modern spoken drama) to cope with Japanese policy’s inspections and permissions. Some repertoires adapted from news reports or criminal cases in the 1920s were also an inspiring resource for Taiwanese opera actors to integrate modern costumes and songs into their performances. This hybrid performance gradually developed into a unique subgenre in Taiwanese opera: opeila.
The Transformation of Opeila in Post-war Taiwan
The popularity of opeila in post-war Taiwan reflected the flexibility of the performance and created the innovation needed in commercial playhouses. Watching Taiwanese opera was part of ordinary Taiwanese people’s lives during the difficult time after the war. The post-war “indoor-stage period” for Taiwanese opera emerged and continued into the early 1960s. This phase has been recognized as the golden era of development for Taiwanese opera. At that time, Taiwanese opera troupes commonly scheduled ten-day periods to perform in one commercial playhouse and then moved on to another. Due to the popularity of opeila, the etiquette was to perform “classical plays for matinees and opeila for evening performances “because evening performances usually attracted fuller audiences and larger profits. The flexibility of opeila enabled performances to go beyond the initial goal of avoiding Japanese police inspection to become a progressively hybrid performance. As such, opeila shows how Taiwanese people have exercised their creativity and unique local culture under censorship during the Martial Law period. The scenic design was a major feature of opeila in commercial playhouses. The commodious stage in commercial playhouses allowed designers to play around with scenery designed to enrich shows. When performing repertoires that adopted Japanese elements, the backdrop would include Japanese houses, tatami mats, and sliding paper-grated doors to match the plot. Occasionally, during a scene in the show involving an assassination, audience members could usually see the shadow of a figure behind the door. The assassin would stab the figure behind the door with a sword, and then red lights and rapid drumming would create a strained, tense mood. The light-transmitting effect of the Japanese paper door, which was not possible in traditional Chinese operas, provided an excellent scene to portray an assassination.
The prosperity of Taiwanese opera in commercial playhouses gradually came to an end after the early 1960s due to the rise of new media, such as movies and television. As a result, numerous Taiwanese opera performers had to explore careers outside commercial playhouses and acclimate themselves to transitioning from indoor commercial playhouses to outdoor stages. This transition, however, necessitated the transformation of opeila and reshaped its form in several ways.
First, the running schedule of a repertoire shrank from ten days to one to three days, so the performance had to be considerably condensed. The accelerated pace of performances also changed the musical instrumentation of opeila. The use of both Western musical instruments and popular songs increased significantly on the outdoor stage. The jazz drum replaced the traditional single-skin drum and played a key role in controlling the rhythm of opeila performances.
Second, the space change also shifted the audience’s visual focus from the stage setting to the performers’ costumes, hairstyles, and makeup. The space of the outdoor stage was greatly reduced, so it could only accommodate limited props, and actors had to simplify their movements accordingly. As a result, the performer’s pose and costume became extremely important as they attracted the audience’s visual attention. Some troupes even performed gimmick shows deliberately set in foreign countries since these highlighted exotic movements. Among various fancy costumes, the sequin robe was popular after the 1980s and has become the most representative dress of opeila.
Third, the shrunken space of outdoor stages motivates changes in the content of opeila performances, from spotlighting lively fighting scenes to storylines featuring less movement, such as romantic love stories. Romance stories in opeila featured the protagonist’s emotional reactions to grievances, faithlessness, deceptions, and hopelessness. Leading actresses who performed as male protagonists continued to be the star of the troupe, so many named the troupe after the leading performer to appeal to fans. For example, when acting out the plot of lovesickness in opeila, the male protagonist might step onto the stage holding a silk handkerchief and sing an amorous song. During the interlude, he may gently stroke the handkerchief with his cheek, representing how the object reminded him of his loved one. The performance of a tryst between men and women would be even more thinly veiled. The man would use gestures to invite the woman to stay overnight with him and then hold the woman in his arms until he finally stepped down from the stage. Flirting scenes like this usually roused excitement in the audience and marked a stark departure from the storylines that emphasize heavy fighting.
Opeila has always advanced with the times, and its value has received attention after the turn of the century. In fact, the hybrid performance style of opeila is still in continuous development in the present day. The influence of Japanese period dramas has gone beyond the Japanese colonial period and extended into post-war Taiwan. Indeed, the hybrid form of opeila combines Chinese operas, Japanese period dramas, modern spoken dramas, western films, and more. It is fair to say that opeila has been an essential part of Taiwanese opera and the epitome of Taiwanese local creativity. Therefore, the origin and development of opeila embody the spirit of Taiwan’s cultural vitality.
Jasmine Yu-Hsing Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Utah State University. She specializes in contemporary Chinese and Sinophone theatre, film, media, visual culture, and literature. Her research examines how theatrical and cinematic works challenge government-promoted nationalism and how theatre interacts with new media. She has published peer-reviewed articles in journals including Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, Comparative Media Arts Journal, Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, and Journal of Chinese Overseas. She is a member of the Board of Directors at the North American Taiwan Studies Association.
To learn more about theatre in Taiwan, please refer to our previous special issue, ‘Theatre in Taiwan 2022- 2023’.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled “A Century of Development in Taiwan.”