A childhood passion finally comes alive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


There appear to be two Christine Seto Mi-hars, the hard-working businesswoman and the Cantonese opera artist just bursting to break free.

When asked to strike a few opera poses, her entire facial expression and body stance change for the camera.

For Seto, 50, Cantonese opera is an obsession.

Even as a child, she listened to opera excerpts on the radio: 'I love stories, and for me, listening to Cantonese opera is like listening to stories - with melody,' she says.

But a lack of family support and money meant her passion remained just that, until 2009 - the same year Cantonese opera was recognised by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage - when Seto finally got the chance to realise her childhood dream.

Having immersed herself in work over three decades - the last five years of which were spent building up a successful household culinary trading company - she had both the money and time to enrol in a full-time Cantonese opera diploma programme at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, which she has just completed.

The mother of two has signed on for the two-year advanced diploma in the same department, starting this September, which will prepare her for a new four-year degree programme in Cantonese opera that the academy will launch in 2013.

Seto has always wanted to learn the art. Her 'training' began after secondary school when she joined a course at a neighbourhood welfare centre, where she learned the basics of the southern Chinese traditional performing art.

But at 17, she got her first job as a junior office clerk and could not afford further classes.

So for three decades she focused on work and avoided listening to Cantonese opera for fear her obsession would be triggered again.

But her determination to learn the art never waned. Cantonese opera has lost none of its charm for her. 'The gorgeous costumes and the elegant movements of the performers' that seduced her are still major features,' Seto says.

And, she says: 'What captivates me most are always the stories of the lovers and the beautiful lyrics of the works, especially those by [Cantonese-opera playwright] Tong Tik-sang, such as Zi Caai Gei [The Legend of Purple Hairpin] and Dai Neoi Faa [Princess Changping].'

Though she is not as flexible as her younger fellow students, Seto - whose idols include Fong Yim-fun, Lee Po-ying and Yam Kim-fai - enjoys every aspect of the training, from singing and acting to rehearsing for end-of-term performances.

Looking back at the time when she shut herself off from Cantonese opera, Seto says she has no regrets: 'There are only 24 hours in a day. If I had indulged in Cantonese opera back then, I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on my career.

'Cantonese opera can be very addictive - it has the ability to make you think about nothing else.'