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Living Taiwanese Opera: Improvisation, Performance of Gender, and Selection of Tradition


This dissertation investigates the culture and cultural production of itinerant, professional Taiwanese opera performers in Taipei's temple circuit. I argue that the community of actors and musicians and their occupational and lifestyle practices constitute a subculture that is central to both maintaining and transforming Taiwanese opera. Drawing on ethnographic research, I characterize the opera subculture's idiosyncratic and fluid features, examine the major ways in which they are manifested--namely in improvisation, performance of gender, and selection of tradition--and discuss the cultural work they perform.

Full-time, for-profit troupes--the focus of my research--primarily work for temple patrons in privately contracted performances and occasionally in government-sponsored events. Performances in the former venue are improvised or, as the performers describe it, "alive," whereas the latter type privileges written practices and marginalizes oral conventions. I assert that improvisation, a distinctive and crucial attribute in the temple-contracted context, is an imperative performance skill for producing unscripted stories and a professional strategy for adapting to new circumstances. My analyses of improvisation as a performance skill highlight actor-musician interactions in song performance that shows spontaneous musical processes in opera production. Improvisation, or the ability to be flexible, is a professional strategy with which performers operate enabling them to maintain the appeal of a traditional art in a rapidly changing cosmopolitan society. In particular, I argue that the socioeconomic situation in recent decades and the developing hybrid opera style in the temple context opened a space for an alternative model of gender performance, one that expresses female masculinity. Moreover, improvisation as a professional strategy enables performers to adapt to the demands of recently developed government-sponsored events and participate in a hegemonically-constructed process for selecting a dominant version of the Taiwanese opera tradition. Through three case studies, I posit that the performers' flexible approach in this process constructs multiple versions of the opera tradition, thereby disrupting authoritative attempts at claiming a singular mode of production.

Through these analyses, I suggest that Taiwanese opera is a living tradition with continually shifting conventions and cultural meanings. The performers rapidly adjust to different and new ways of performance in order to capitalize on opportunities, ensure the cultural relevancy of their creative production, and secure their livelihood.

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