Western opera might seem a strange art form to flourish in Taiwan. Last year, however, saw the first production anywhere in Asia of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and this was followed by La Damnation de Faust (Berlioz) - even more of a rarity in these parts. Mozart's Don Giovanni was rapturously received in April, and Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan Tutti will follow over the next two years. This intense activity is nothing new. For 20 years, Felix Chen Chiu-sen gave the island a series of sumptuous opera productions, of which his Madam Butterfly, of 2001, was typical. It began as a production of great verisimilitude and subtlety in Taipei's National Theatre, and reappeared nine months later in an open-air version in a Taipei city square. En route, it was twice staged in a field in the island's central mountains to audiences of 15,000 each time. These shows were advertised along the entire central section of the main highway, rising to an appropriately operatic crescendo at the turn-off to the upland location. British tenor Justin Lavender sang the role of Pinkerton sedated with painkillers following kidney-stone trouble, and on one evening, the crowd sat through a heavy rainstorm rather than miss any of the heartbreaking action. In the mountains, and at the city square performances, the action was relayed on giant video screens. In the original indoor production, a rising moon was one of the aesthetic delights. This effect was not possible in the square but, instead, cameramen trained their lenses on the real moon, drifting in and out of clouds. The blend of this unpredictable effect and the costumed stage action provided a beautiful coup de theatre. Butterfly and its many fine predecessors were the work of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, and were supported by the city government. Currently, however, the running is being made by the National Symphony Orchestra, which is under the wing of the central government, and is led by young maestro Chien Wen-pin. He is staging his operas in the National Concert Hall, rather than the National Theatre, and has followed a policy of employing young Taiwanese directors from outside the classical music world - experimental theatre professionals, ballet choreographers, film directors and the like. They have often come up with even more eye-catching versions - Tosca as a thriller peopled by Taipei gangsters, Faust as a child's science-fiction dream and Don Giovanni set inside the heads of a young, modern Taiwanese couple. These shows are also attracting new audiences. As a result, a wide range of enthusiasts is looking forward to Bellini's Norma in late December and Verdi's Falstaff next April.