American lifts curtain on opera

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am

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One of the few Western performers to take to the stage in Cantonese opera hopes he can open up the colourful but often impenetrable art form to a new audience.

New York native Lyle Rose first got the chance to take to the stage when a well-known performer heard him humming along as his wife rehearsed her role in a performance of the famous Cantonese opera Dai Nui Fa (or Princess Cheung Ping).

Rose, 59, has since been joined on stage for performances of the show by his 17-year-old son, Leonard, who plays female roles.

'We are two gweilos performing Cantonese opera, but we want to bring attention to the beauty of the costumes and the majesty of the performances,' said Lyle Rose, who regrets that the art is not more accessible to non-Cantonese speakers.

He runs a US-based performance management firm specialising in creative management - and once had to rush to the airport for a business meeting in Las Vegas while removing the remnants of stage make-up from his face.

Rose first immersed himself in Cantonese culture when he moved to Hong Kong in the 1980s, where he married his wife, Cynthia Huie-Rose, a local doctor who performs opera at a professional level.

In 2009, a year after the family returned to Hong Kong after more than a decade living in the US, Rose was given the opportunity to take the stage himself, while his wife rehearsed for a show at the Jordan Community Centre.

'I was sitting in the audience, humming the words of the melody I had heard many times before, when Cynthia's teacher turned around and asked if I wanted to try too,' Rose said. Lynda Wan Ka-sing, a well-known Cantonese opera performer, is now the family's teacher.

Rose's first appearance in Dai Nui Fa at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre in June 2010 was a nervy occasion.

'I was a bit paranoid for the first few performances. I could hear the audience laugh,' Rose said. 'After the first few lines, everyone was clapping and cheering.'

Rose now performs Dai Nui Fa with Leonard, who plays Princess Cheung Ping, having picked up the melody after hearing his parents sing. His elder son Lawrence, 19, is a singer and composer despite having a hearing impairment.

Rose is now performing at several venues in Hong Kong, mostly for charity. Father and son will perform Dai Nui Fa in Paterson Street, Causeway Bay, during the Confucius festival on February 4.

In June, Rose plans to help organise a show at the Ko Shan Theatre, Hung Hom, that will offer simultaneous translation of the text in Chinese and English and invite members of the audience backstage, in the hope of attracting new interest from locals and foreigners.

'We want to tell people what it is about, who the different characters are and what the make-up means,' said Rose, adding he is concerned that most Westerners in Hong Kong know nothing of the native art form.

And fellow performers share his concern.

'I can go and enjoy Italian opera even without understanding a word. Why would it not be the same with Cantonese opera?' said Martin Lau Kwok-ying, a professional erhu player at the Hong Kong Young Talent Opera Troupe and Lyle Rose's singing teacher. He added that Chinese opera was sometimes too insular and rarely looked beyond its traditional audience. 'What the Rose family is doing is a good opportunity.'