The Formosa-Zephyr Opera Troupe (臺灣春風歌劇團) has done some strange things with the gezai opera (歌仔戲) format in the past, and it is up to its antics again with Murder in a Snowbound Inn (雪夜客棧殺人事件), a take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express that opens today at Taipei’s Experimental Theater.
The show is being presented just prior to the National Theater going into its pre-Lunar New Year hibernation and refurbishment, and follows hard on the heels of the New Idea Theater Festival (新點子劇展), which focused this year on giving classical opera a modern twist. This is hardly an ideal time slot, but the group is uniquely well-placed within the gezai opera establishment because it is composed completely of students and alumni of National Taiwan University (國立台灣大學) and National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學) and thus represents a new demographic of young, highly educated people who are interested in preserving traditional culture. With its ability to draw on student audiences, backed by a strong track record, it is not surprising that all four performances this weekend are already sold-out.
Director Su Chih-yun (蘇芷雲) has a degree in veterinary science, scriptwriter Hsu Mei-hui (�?f) has a degree in social work and lead performer Li Pei-ying (李佩穎) graduated with a law degree and a master’s in sociology. All three have achieved a strong track record in theater, most notably with their production of The Venetian Twins (威尼斯雙胞案), a modern gezai opera based on a story by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, at the Sixth Taishin Arts Awards (第六屆台新藝術獎) in 2007.
Formosa-Zephyr is the only non-professional gezai troupe with the resources to mount an original production from scratch. “There are some groups of young people who are trying to make a go of being gezai performers. We are distinct from the older generation, but want to carry on this local tradition,” troupe director Yeh Mei-ru (葉玫汝), who graduated with a law degree from National Taiwan University and has dedicated herself to work in gezai opera for past last five years, told the Taipei Times in an interview last June.
In the case of Murder in a Snowbound Inn, Formosa-Zephyr aimed to explore a new format using gezai opera. According to lead performer Li, the group wanted to get away from gezai stereotypes in which the lead male is always something of a romantic hero. In this case, she said, there are no moonlit assignations and eternal partings, just the calculated pushing forward of a plot to discover who committed the murder. The sense of suspense that Murder in a Snowbound Inn creates is very different from judicial-themed operas, where the audience almost invariably knows more than the performers. Keeping the audience in the dark is quite a new departure for gezai opera, she said.
— IAN BARTHOLOMEW