Taiwanese opera troupes, known as gezaixi (歌仔戲), originated in Yilan County in the early part of the 20th century. These troupes were one of the main forms of entertainment in early agricultural society in Taiwan, rooted in the culture of the common people, and comparable in some ways to the early development of opera in Europe.
However, the art form was suppressed by colonial rulers, first by the kominka (literally, to “make people become imperial subjects”) movement during the Japanese colonial era and subsequently by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government. Recorded music was the final nail in its coffin.
To promote the development of traditional opera, and to enhance the creativity and caliber of opera troupes, Taipei has been holding joint gezaixi performances for the past few years, initially once every two years and subsequently on an annual basis.
Since 2017, it has also been holding competitions to find outstanding troupes and individual performers, and these competitions have been a major driver for pushing the genre forward.
Avid fans of the operas could not get enough, while the troupes and individual performers had a chance to vie with each other and themselves, honing their technique and clearly improving along the way.
Unfortunately, the audiences that come year in, year out mainly consist of senior citizens.
The aging performers onstage, thanking the audience for their generous applause, often say things, such as: “If it weren’t for you coming to see us perform, we wouldn’t be up here.”
I have also heard performers say with a sigh that, unless they can attract larger audiences to the performances, the form might not survive.
In the past few years, only the first 30 minutes of each of the Taiwanese opera performances have been broadcast live, the hope being that people wishing to see more would make the journey to attend live performances and see them in full.
However, this year, online advertisements said that only two performances would be broadcast in full, seven would broadcast the first half hour only and five would not be broadcast at all.
This is a real pity. The broadcasts give older or disadvantaged people who find it difficult to get out, or those who do not have the time to travel to the venue, the opportunity to see the performances.
People who chance upon broadcasts of these performances online, having had the chance to become acquainted with the form, often start going to the live performances so that they can see it in person.
Every year, large amounts of money — from public funds and private sponsorships — and effort go into helping gezaixi performances, the musicians and performers shine. Given the huge benefits that these performances bring, why should they not be broadcast?
Broadcasting the shows would not necessarily cause the audience to shrink, as there is nothing like attending a live performance to see it with one’s own eyes.
As Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), winner of the group category in this year’s Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music, said: “Everyone is welcome to come to the theater, to see just how wonderful gezaixi is.”
Government agencies and opera troupes need to target the younger generation and men as potential audiences for gezaixi, and they must do this if the art form is to have a future.
Lin Jung-shu is a retired teacher.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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