Traditional Chinese Music
There are four main professional groups in Taiwan performing mostly traditional Han Chinese music: The Taipei Chinese Orchestra founded by the Taipei City Government in 1979, the National Chinese Orchestra set up by the Ministry of Education in 1984, the Kaohsiung City Chinese Orchestra and the Ensemble Orientalia of Taipei. All of them offer concerts regularly in Taiwan and perform overseas.
Beiguan and Nanguan
Beiguan and nanguan are two distinct styles of traditional Chinese music that have taken root in Taiwan. Nanguan was likely brought to the island from Fujian Province on the Chinese mainland as early as the 15th century, while beiguan arrived via Quanzhou in Fujian nearly two centuries later. Beiguan music, performed in ensemble with a wide array of instruments, remains integral to religious processions, celebrations and traditional drama performances (especially Hakka tea-picking opera) in Taiwan today. Sharing a number of musical features and sequences with the musical theater of northern China that evolved into Peking Opera, it is played as accompaniment at a variety of dramatic performances as well as religious processions and performances.
Nanguan, like other musical traditions originating south of the Yangtze River on the Chinese mainland, comprises emotive melodic progressions suited to introspective, emotive arias and figures prominently in Taiwanese opera. A major performer in Taiwan of nanguan music is the Han Tang Yuefu Music Ensemble founded in 1983. Its most recent production, “Luo Shen Fu—the Tale of the Luo River Goddess,” premiered in 2006. The group regularly performs in Taiwan and overseas.
Western Classical Music
Taiwan’s three major professional orchestras are the Taichung-based National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra founded in 1945, the Taipei-based National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) established in 1986, and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) set up in 1969. They often work with international performers and conductors to perform works of Western composers and regularly travel abroad. The Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1985, is the largest private orchestra in Taiwan. Its 2008 concert schedule included guest conductor Jorma Panula directing an all Sibelius program in June, and guest conductor Andreas Delfs directing all Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler programs in October and November.
The Taipei Opera Theater and the National Theater present Western grand opera performances frequently. Taipei Opera Theater has staged many productions since its founding in 1976, including Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”; Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and “The Marriage of Figaro”; Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; Gounod’s “Faust”; Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love”; and Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” The NSO and the TSO regularly support major opera productions. Construction began in 2008 of the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito. It will seat just over 2,000 in the main auditorium, 800 in a playhouse and 200 in a black-box experimental theater.
The 1990s were the heyday of popular music in Taiwan, which was at one point Asia’s second-largest market behind only Japan. Since reaching a zenith in 1997, however, the industry has seen revenue fall by more than 50 percent because of illegal downloading and a diversification of entertainment channels, among other reasons. Nevertheless, pop music is still the most dynamic sector of the entertainment business, and with 80 percent of popular Chinese music being produced in Taiwan, the nation continues to be the most prolific producer of this music genre. Taiwanese acts (such as pop stars Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai and the girl group S.H.E) still dominate charts throughout the Chinese-speaking world.
Taiwanese Holo Popular Music
Although popular music sung in Mandarin dominates the radio airwaves and selection palettes in most karaoke establishments, modern and contemporary popular music sung in Taiwanese Holo is now ubiquitous. Modern Taiwanese popular music dates back to the early decades of the 20th century, when it was chiefly composed of Japanese popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s with the lyrics translated into Taiwanese.
Modern Taiwanese popular music encountered censorship in the 1970s, reducing its media exposure briefly, but underwent an underground revival in the 1980s. After martial law was lifted in 1987, recordings of modern Taiwanese popular music returned to the airwaves and remain popular with older people to day in Taiwan because of the worldview it expresses, the moving and artistic Taiwanese language in which it is sung and the high degree of craftsmanship evident in its marriage of poetry with lyrical melody. Younger audiences have been attracted to this genre recently through the singing artistry of Chiang Huei who rose to stardom in the 1980s.
Contemporary Taiwanese popular music appeals mostly to a younger, primarily post martial-law generation that is receptive to a broader range of overseas (mostly Western) popular culture sources for inspiration. It features a raw, energetic style that is perhaps best personified by Wu Bai and Lim Giong, two of the most successful singers in the genre, and draws on many types of Western popular music for its melody, tempo and mood—rock, rap, reggae and blues all figure prominently.
Bands and Independent Acts
Underground bands began to be formed in Taiwan in the late 1980s and 1990s, and won followings because of their support of the pro-democracy movement and association with political subversion and social commentary. These groups include veteran punk act LTK Commune (the so-called progenitor of Taiwan’s indie scene), rock band Blacklist Workshop, heavy-metal group ChthoniC and feminist punk band Ladybug.
As the 1990s progressed, non-pop genres began to achieve a mainstream following, blurring the gap between alternative and mainstream in Taiwan. Mayday and Luan Tan are rock acts popular in the mid-to-late 1990s. With contraction of the market for pop music in the last decade, an increasing number of independent labels have emerged featuring alternative bands and artists, such as student folk-rock band Sodagreen and Deserts Chang (also known as Chang Xuan), a female urban folk singer-songwriter.
Chinese Music Theater
Theatrical or televised performances of traditional Chinese music theater are not as commonly seen today in Taiwan as was the case two decades ago, yet opera schools, community theaters and temples, as well as the National Theater, do offer strictly traditional presentations and modern re-interpretations of the form. The most common varieties of Chinese music theater performed in Taiwan today are Peking Opera, which first reached maturity on the Chinese mainland during the Ching dynasty; Taiwanese Opera, which spawned from several dramatic traditions and types of music brought from southern regions of mainland China; and Kun Opera, which is being “reinvented” through cross-strait collaboration.
Taiwan’s major Peking opera troupes are the National Guo Guang Opera Company and the National Fu Hsing Chinese Opera Theater. The Guo Guang company was established in 1995 following the shutdown of three major military-sponsored opera troupes. Performers from those groups merged into the new one, which maintains a highly traditional repertoire.
Fu Hsing is affiliated with the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts, formerly the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy that in 1999 merged with the National Guo Guang Dramatic Arts Academy to become the island’s main training school for Chinese opera. Fu Hsing is known for being more adventuresome than Guo Guang in its productions, which tend to be new scripts that combine traditional and modern ideas.
Like Fu Hsing, other opera groups have tried to modernize Peking opera. One of the first to begin experimenting on a more modest scale was Kuo Hsiao-chuang, who founded the Ya-yin Ensemble in 1979. Kuo sought younger audiences by bringing a strong visual dimension to her productions, adding more stage props, dramatic lighting effects and revolving platforms. Another innovator was the Contemporary Legend Theater founded by opera actor Wu Hsing-kuo in 1984, which staged Peking opera adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” Euripides’ “Medea” and Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia.”
The crucible for Taiwanese Opera is Yilan County in eastern Taiwan a century ago, where the love story plots and slapstick of cheguxi (cart drum plays) music theater were combined with folk songs, jinge (a traditional musical form originating in Fujian Province) and nanguan music to provide entertainment during religious processions and special festivals. This form of music theater was originally performed on outdoor stages for special occasions, such as weddings and temple festivals, although it has found a formal theatrical setting in recent decades.
The role of Yilan in the development of Taiwanese opera continues to this very day. Its County Cultural Center sponsors a performing troupe and houses a Taiwanese opera museum. There are few performing troupes of professional caliber around the island, but the most prominent is the Ming Hwa Yuan Theater Troupe established in 1929. Its productions combine the form’s traditional folk theater heritage with modern cinematic and theatrical techniques, particularly in lighting and scenery.
The genre’s most celebrated actress is Yang Li-hua, with a career now spanning 45 years. She last presented a new production, “A Life for the Master,” at the National Theater in 2007, in which she played three different roles. Like many Taiwanese opera actresses, Yang made her reputation playing male roles. Early on, male performers dominated Taiwanese opera, but today women play most of the major roles.
The form of traditional Chinese drama with the highest literary cachet, Kun Opera is undergoing a creative revival of sorts. Many of the authentic traditional performance skills of Kun Opera requiring musical, physical and artistic skills of a substantively higher level than those required for any other form of traditional opera are presumably already lost. However, Peking Opera absorbed some of its music in the 19th century as that originally regional form sought to gain greater literary status in imperial eyes. This, along with the survival of written chuanqi scripts and the artistic judgment of Peking opera performers and producers in Taiwan and mainland China, has led to collaborative experiments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait with mounting Kun opera “revival” performances.
The Lanting Kun Opera Troupe, founded in 1994 by Gao Hui-lan, has been very active since 2005, with a production of Wang Ting-na’s Ming-era chuanqi play, “The Lioness Roars,” in 2006; “Seeking the Peony Pavilion” in 2007; and a six-play anthology of 10 selected scenes in 2008.
Performers from Lanting and the Guo Guang Opera Company (see the “Peking Opera” section) collaborated in 2009 for a 12-week run of Kun opera performances at Taipei’s National Palace Museum based on an adaptation of Hong Sheng’s 17th-century chuanqi play, “The Palace of Eternal Youth.” Much too complex a work to perform in its entirety of 50 acts even over several sittings, the plot was revised into a 90-minute production for afternoon sessions at the museum. The revision draws connections between the plot and the Tang-era painting “Emperor Minghuang’s Flight to Szechwan,” which was on display at the museum.
Attaining sustainability of a re-invented Kun opera form will require training a new generation of performers. The Taiwan Kunqu Opera Theater, established in 1999, continues to bring performers from mainland China to Taiwan for training sessions with students and holds regular performances excerpted from chuanqi plays.
Taiwan author Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai (see the “Literature” section below) is also championing revival of the form. He successfully staged adaptations of Kun opera classics “Peony Pavilion” in 2006 and “The Jade Hairpin” in 2009.