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.