Ho Lo Taiwanese Opera

A strength of Taiwanese Opera is that it continues to allow new stories to emerge and innovations to take place. The Ho Lo Taiwanese Opera Troupe takes full advantage of that, to the delight of audiences. Pat Gao reports in the Taiwan Review:

Foreign visitors to the February 28 Peace Park in Taipei County's Sanchong City one weekend night last November might have thought the large crowd attending a Taiwanese opera performance by the Ho Lo Taiwanese Opera Troupe showed the local populace's dedication to traditional art forms. Probably they would not realize that what they were seeing was an innovation which Ho Lo had pioneered, a Taiwanese opera about Taiwan.

Given that Taiwanese opera is one of the island's principal indigenous art forms, that it should be used to dramatize stories about the lives and history of the Taiwanese might seem natural. But in fact this is a bold departure from the traditional repertoire. Since the mid-17th century, Han immigrants, mostly from southeast China's coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, brought with them their own dramatic traditions such as pak-kuan (or beiguan, northern style) and lam-kuan (or nanguan, southern style) music and opera, as well as puppetry. In the 19th century, an all-male form of singing and acting, performed on the ground rather than a stage, either as entertainment or as part of religious festivals, was developed in the northeastern region of Yilan. It remains the only indigenous Taiwanese genre of drama. Kua-a-hi, now known as Taiwanese opera, however, dramatized stories from Chinese classical novels and folklore, which were performed in the local Holo [Taiwanese] language. Meanwhile, it absorbed many other local elements such as tunes from aboriginal plains-dwellers and Hakka immigrants. Local audiences found kua-a-hi more appealing than other imported forms of drama, and the genre became increasingly popular, soon being performed on a proper stage.

In the mid-1920s, during Japanese rule, professional kua-a-hi troupes began moving from community and temple plazas to indoor theaters to attract urban audiences. Many players in other forms of drama converted to this quickly emerging genre, which they also helped enrich and diversify with their own theatrical skills and knowledge.... Nowadays, the creation of complete scripts is already a part of the standard process of kua-a-hi performance for distinguished troupes like Ho Lo, which also produces adaptations from foreign plays such as those from Russia and China's Fujian area.

But one strange aspect of Taiwanese opera was its reliance on themes and stories from outside Taiwan; it was an indigenous art form with no indigenous material. This is where the work of Ho Lo has been so innovatory. Since 2000 Ho Lo has staged four dramas written around Taiwanese themes.

The Hol Lo dramas and some of their settings:

Taiwan, Our Mother (2000)

Adapted from Wintry Night, a novel by Taiwanese author Lee Chiao. The story centers on Hakka settlers in Taiwan during Qing dynasty rule (1683-1895) and the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945).

A Story of Love and Feud (2001)

Set in the Wanhua district of Taipei during the Qing and Japanese rule. The feud is between immigrant groups from southern Fujian's Quanzhou and Zhangzhou cities.

The Kingdom of Tong Ning (2004)

Southern Ming regime (1662-1683) established by Jheng Cheng-gong (1624-1662) in Tainan.

A Garden Story about Zhu Gian, Lin Zhan Mei (2005).

Pat Gao and scholar Tseng Yong-yih describe the style:

Ho Lo's work is characterized by fast-paced plots, distinct and eye-catching stage sets, the restoration of various typical tunes and the assimilation of elements from other forms of performance art such as Beijing opera and modern dance.... Ho Lo's plays feature an extensive use of idiomatic Holo language and witticisms. In a Ho Lo play, such as the Sanchong performance, the audience can read each line of dialogue on screens beside the stage. 'The troupe holds on to the core value of an old dramatic art but adapts itself to a modern theater environment,' Tseng says. 'That core is the profound native tradition mainly expressed in the Holo vernacular.' . . .

In contrast to Ming Hwa Yuan, established in 1929, Ho Lo does not have its origins in the community gatherings, mostly in front of temples, from which kua-a-hi developed. 'Ho Lo plays a very unique role in the development of Taiwanese opera,' Lin Fong-hsiung says. 'Its work displays an urban intellectual taste by putting emphasis on a clear motif, a well-structured script and the classical grace of the Holo language.'

The shows may be viewed any summer in Taiwan. The complete article may be viewed in the Taiwan Review.




Here's wishing you a joyous Noel.



Taiwan Guides

The popular Taiwan Fun city guides are now available in a streamlined new flip-book version.

For several eyars now these monthly guides have served Taiwan's international community well, highlighting new restaurants, good films, and lively nightspots in both Mandarin and English. The new format essentially makes the magazine an e-book that your read in your browser. It shows you facing pages, which can be 'flipped' with the click of a mouse.

The monthly magazines for Taipei, Taichung, and southern Taiwan can be downloaded from the web site to your computer. The site provides back issues and you can also ask to have them mailed to you.

Also available on the site are back issues of Taiwan Eyethat including features such as 'The New Taiwanese Woman' (April 2005) and 'Finding Formosa' (July 2005).



Tainan Tech

We're cranking up our new academic year at the Tainan Women's College of Arts & Technology, but there are some changes this time around. The most conspicuous: it's no longer the Tainan Women's College. It's the Tainan University of Technology now and it serves both male and female students.

A number of universities in Taiwan have been making the upgrade to university status. The jump is accompanied by increased funding, so it is no from the government. So it's no surprise that Tainan Tech is making improvements all over campus. The Music Department is getting a much-needed refurbishment and the new library is a delight. Everything feels crisp, bright, and open.

We are already seeing a jump in the number of male students, too. My conducting class consisted of twelve women last year; this year we have twelve women and four men. How much more this ratio will change is hard to predict, as the majority of music majors in Taiwan tend to be female anyway. We see this even in such specialties as conducting, percussion, and double bass, which in Western countries attract far more men.

The school retains the strong arts emphasis that has always distinguished it. The campus is still one big sculpture garden, though the landscapers have rearranged things a bit.

I will be working with choral conductors and chamber musicians again this year. To our recorder, woodwind and brass groups we're adding a chamber orchestra and ensembles consisting of electronic pianos. The electronic piano majors perform music in a variety of idioms, from Mozart symphony transcriptions to tangos and rhumbas. They, along with the chamber orchestra, are scheduled to debut in early December.

The changes are a lift for us. We're glad to get started.



she said: what is history?

And he said: History is an angel
being blown backwards into the future.

He said: History is a pile of debris
and the angel wants to go back and fix things
to repair the things that have been broken.
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
and the storm keeps blowing the angel
backwards into the future

And this storm, this storm
is called

Laurie Anderson
Strange Angels: 'The Dream Before' (for Walter Benjamin)



Wanli Seacoast

This weekend I went with friends to Taiwan's northern coast, to the village of Wanli on Cape Yehliou near Keelung. The town boasts a beautiful seacoast with docks, temple, and beach. It's also a fascinating spot for those who enjoy geography. Wanli's rocky beach in Wanli was once ocean floor that broke the surface a few million years ago. It looks the part. Taiwan today continues its 200 million-year rise from the ocean.

The top picture shows the Queen's Head. The Queen is a popular lady at Wanli. Recent studies show that this formation is eroding quickly, along with similar hoodoo stones at Cape Yehliu. The Queen's 'neck' has thinned severely in just the last two decades. Published research describes the origin of the formations and discusses options for slowing the rate of erosion.



World View

These are images from my visit with Taiwan friends to the Window of the World theme park in Shenzhen in China's Guangdong Province. (See 2006.7.18 post.)

The park is built around replicas of the world's major landmarks (its currently reigning tallest building, of course, not included).

At the time the park was celebrating an International Beer Festival. But an International Beer Festival in China seems to be international the way a World Series in the United States is worldwide. Nearly all the brews in evidence came from China.

All in all, it was a fine day for anyone carrying a camera.


Monument in Miniature

A concert tour recently took the musicians of the Tao Yuan Symphonic Winds and me to Shenzhen (China PRC), as mentioned in an earlier post (2006.7.18). While there we visited Splendid China, the city's theme park that serves for all practical purposes as a 3D travel brochure.

The park is built around miniature replicas of tourist spots from around China. My Taiwanese friends and I were delighted to find this replica of the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. Dr Sun is regarded as a hero in Taiwan for his democratic ideals.

It was impossible for us to miss the influence of the Mausoleum's architecture on the design of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial in Taipei. Chiang, of course, wished to be viewed as Dr Sun's successor. He aspired to be a kind of Lincoln to Sun's Washington, one who sustained the vision of the country's founder through a divisive civil war.



Splendid Park

Here are images from my visit with Taiwan friends to the Splendid China theme park in Shenzhen in China's Guangdong Province (see post 2006.07.18).



Taiwan Musicians in China

The Tao Yuan Symphonic Winds have returned from our concert visit to Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, China (PRC). This was an interesting way to see China for the first time--in the company of Taiwanese colleagues, most of whom were making their own first visits to China.

Our concert took place in the main Civic Center auditorium in Shenzhen. This cavernous place with a huge curvaceous roof makes for impressive architecture indeed. The auditorium was designed for spoken presentations, though, so for musical purposes the acoustics were dry.

Here are some audio files from the concert (MP3 format).

Jerome Naulais (b 1933)
featuring the Taoyuan Saxophone Quartet

American Traditional
Lord of the Dance (Simple Gifts)

Atsuhiro Isozaki
Japanese Graffiti IV

Those familiar with the soundtrack of the early George Lucas film American Graffiti will understand Isozaki's medley right away. Japanese Graffiti IV is one of a series of medleys by that title that celebrate popular songs that originated in Japan and played on east Asian radio stations in the late 50s and early 60s.

The trip permitted us visits to two of Shenzhen's theme parks, Splendid China and Window of the World, in Nanshan District. Photos to come.



Psalm 133 Revisited

A newer version of this offering was posted on 2008 March 14.


Mobile and Morbid

The Middle Kingdom under the present Mao Dynasty is always good for warm, fuzzy human interest stories. Here's one from USA Today: how a fleet of 'death vans' not only facilitates the mind-boggling number of executions that take place in China, but the illegal organ harvesting industry from which local officials stand to profit.

For years, foreign human rights groups have accused China of arbitrary executions and cruelty in its use of capital punishment. The exact number of convicts put to death is a state secret. Amnesty International estimates there were at least 1,770 executions in China in 2005 — vs. 60 in the United States, but the group says on its website that the toll could be as high as 8,000 prisoners.

The "majority are still by gunshot," says Liu Renwen, death penalty researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank in Beijing. "But the use of injections has grown in recent years, and may have reached 40%."

China's critics contend that the transition from firing squads to injections in death vans facilitates an illegal trade in prisoners' organs.

Injections leave the whole body intact and require participation of doctors. Organs can "be extracted in a speedier and more effective way than if the prisoner is shot," says Mark Allison, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. "We have gathered strong evidence suggesting the involvement of (Chinese) police, courts and hospitals in the organ trade."

USA Today reports that at least 40 vehicles have been produced.



Turning Pages in Tainan

Today was the day of commencement ceremonies at the Tainan Women's College of Arts and Technology. This year's ceremonies coincided with torrential rains in southern Taiwan. Plans to award diplomas outdoors were abandoned.

If anything, though, the sogginess just made everyone giddier.

A tradition at this college is for graduates to take a final walk around the campus. Their path winds through colorful and carefully maintained trellises, sculpture gardens, archways, and rows of exotic trees. Loudspeakers sound Taiwanese songs and extroverted music by Handel, Bach, Elgar and Copland. The final stretch takes graduates under a series of festive arches designed, decorated, and held aloft by their classmates.

rite of passage

Joining the college graduates in this tradition were students graduating from the elementary school on campus.


The awarding of diplomas took place indoors.


A choir from the Music Department sang onstage. This choir is a volunteer group (classes are over) and it's tougher work than it appears. The singers, besides having to prepare and perform music in the same week as their final exams, are also called upon in the ceremony to stand perfectly still on stage, holding lit candles, for over forty minutes.

flags, singers, profs

This graduating class is the last from Tainan Women's College. The school has already begun admitting male students and will bear a new name next year. So even more than most, this event marked a moment of completion.

And beginnings.



Chao Ching-Wen's Fanfare

Summer is upon us, and with it its banquet of outdoor concerts and patriotic festivals. If you're in the business of designing the programs, you will be interested in a new piece: Fanfare Under the Stars by Ching-Wen Chao of Taiwan. The fanfare makes an effective opener in the tradition of Copland or Arnaud while representing a fresh new voice.

Fanfare Under the Stars is scored for brass and percussion and lasts 2-3 minutes (43 bars, con brio). The highest note for trumpets is B above the staff in momentary excursions. Instrumentation:

4 horns
4 trumpets
3 trombones
1 tuba
large tom-tom
snare drum
bass dum
cymbals (large crash/suspended)
The Taipei Symphony Winds and I opened our May 2006 concert with the piece. The piece was premiered by Taiwan's National Symphony Orchestra in 2003 and opened a concert in April 2005 given by Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony.

Professor Chao serves on the National Taiwan Normal University composition faculty and earned her DMA in composition at Stanford. She has written works in all genres, including chamber music that combines traditional Asian instruments with their classical European counterparts.

An audio recording of the piece (MP3 format) may be heard at my web site.

For more information you may contact Dr Chao directly:

Ching-Wen Chao, DMA
Assistant Professor of Composition
National Taiwan Normal University
162 Heping East Road
Da'an District
Taipei 106, Taiwan
E-mail: chingwen AT cc DOT ntnu DOT edu DOT tw


Debut Done

Last night the Taipei Symphony Winds and I gave our concert. The special guest soloist was Yang Chiaohui of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. This marked my debut in National Hall.

national concert hall

Ms Yang performed a wind ensemble version of the Concerto for Clarinet no 1 in F minor by Carl Maria von Weber. She is a real poet of the clarinet, a bel canto player. The collaboration was thrilling indeed and I look forward to hearing more of her playing.

We drew a big crowd, too. I'm always impressed to see how many people will come out to a concert in Taiwan on a rainy night and, in this case, a week night at that. It was an audience I fel tembraced by--enthusiastic, uplifting, great energy. I surprising number of my students came. We didn't have a lot of complimentary tickets to give away for this one, so the students had to purchase their own. I wasn't expecting the contingent that appeared, including some of my students from Tainan. One of them came to the stage during the curtain calls to give me flowers.

Right now my head is full of many impressions--things I'm pleased with, things I want to do differently next time, things I've learned about getting results with a new ensemble in a different culture. But right now, as we say in America, it's Miller time.

As audio files become available I will share them on this page at my main web site.



Five Elements

I wrote recently that I had been appointed 2006 principal conductor for the Tao Yuan Symphonic Winds. We performed our first concert together on April 15. What a thrill! I already knew the ensemble fills the hall every time they play, but nothing prepared me for the youth and enthusiasm of this audience. They brought us back for a pair of encores and kept the soloists and I busy signing autographs for a long time afterward.

The theme of the concert was Five Elements. The reference is to the five elements of Feng Shui. Each piece on the program evoked one of the classic elements of earth, wood, metal, fire or water.

Carl Reinecke
Concerto for Flute in D minor
Soloist: Ms Chen Li-Lin

Nigel Hess
Thames Journey

Yo Djing-Shren
Nio Li Ge

Johan De Meij
The Lord of the Rings

Bert Appermont
Noah's Ark

Gustav Holst

Percy Grainger
Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon

Julius Fučík
Entrance of the Gladiators (Thunder and Blazes)

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
'Flight of the Bumblebee' from Mlada
Soloist: Ms Song Wen-Chi (marimba)

The Taoyuan Performing Arts Center was a delightful place to play. The sight lines couldn't be better for the audience and the acoustics are warm and lgowing for the musicans. It's a small stage but the players are used to its dimensions and know how to work with it.

My personal note for the program read:

Tonight's program is built around the idea of the Five Elements. The choice was inspired by the special place this ensemble holds in its community.

The elements remind us of the importance of living in harmony with our environment. For four years now this ensemble and the community have shared music. In the process all have experienced harmony.

The elements remind us of the need to surround ourselves with life-affirming beauty. In is music the ensemble provides this kind of beauty in its community.

The elements remind us of the need for balance. The ensemble provides meaningful music to offset the noise and empty chatter of modern life. Its music explores every aspect of human existence: tender feelings and tough realities, shining cities and dark forests, adult contemplations and childhood joys.

The elements remind us of the wisdom in looking both to the east and the west. Our musicians do this, harmonizing Eastern and Western experiences in making their music.

The elements remind us that vast skies open above us. Music lifts us in that direction, raising our spirits far above the earth our bodies stand on.

We hope you enjoy tonight's program. You are invited to join us again and help us fill each concert with good chi.
Plenty of good chi at this one. It was a fine way to start the season.



Work in Progress

Potential Energy
Taipei, Taiwan
September 2005

This month I'm up to my ears (as it were) in rehearsals for upcoming concerts with the Tao Yuan Symphonic Winds (April 15, Taoyuan) and Taipei Symphony Winds (May 18, Taipei). If you are in Taiwan and would like to join us for either of these concerts, please drop me a line.

I'll share audio files as soon as I get them. Sometimes this takes a while. Watch this page.