Deciding the future of Cantonese opera

Can Hong Kong's traditional art form entice younger audiences and nurture fresh talent as it welcomes a major new venue, asks Winnie Chau

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 9:46am

At an arts festival discussion last year about audience building, Ursula Gessat, head of the Bavarian State Opera's education department, was asked about her achievements over the past 10 years. "Achievements?" she muses. "Let's talk about them 50 years later." That response made a deep impression on her fellow speaker, Cantonese opera master Franco Yuen Siu-fai.

Yuen is not only a leading performer but also an active advocate for his art, especially in his capacity as a vice-chairman of the Chinese Artists Association (CAA) of Hong Kong - the city's oldest and largest union of Cantonese opera performers.

As he sees it, Gessat's approach is a more measured alternative compared to the Hong Kong government's requirement for arts groups to report annual figures on programmes that it supports. This hurry to see immediate results stands at odds with an art form as sophisticated as Cantonese opera, he argues.

The flurry of opera-related projects that officials have crammed into art development programmes since Unesco added Cantonese opera ( Yueju in Putonghua) to its intangible cultural heritage list in 2009 perhaps reinforces this perception.

In the absence of a long-term training system, the CAA has sought to nurture young talent for decades. A recent example is the Young Talent Showcase, which is designed to give emerging artists the chance to perform in full-length productions at Yau Ma Tei Theatre. Launched last year under a venue partnership scheme partly funded by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the year-long showcase placed 46 young performers under the tutelage of five CAA artistic directors, and covered everything from script selection to rehearsals.

Mostly in their 20s, the group put on 129 major performances which drew an average attendance of over 70 per cent of the 300-seat auditorium, which is a creditable run. Yet Yuen says: "The most successful thing about this is not the box office or the compliments, but the atmosphere it has created." The atmosphere he is talking about is one of collaboration behind the scenes, something from which the master draws gratification.

Cantonese opera faces great challenges despite its 1,000 years of history and elevated status, not least because of its elderly audience base and a shrinking pool of future performers.

If you enter this field, you have to follow its rules. Or you shouldn't choose to enter it
Franco Yuen, opera master

Surprisingly, Yuen doesn't worry about shrinking audiences, noting that Westernised Hongkongers often discover an interest in Cantonese opera when they reach middle age. He has faith his art will live on. His concerns are mostly centred on difficulties in recruiting students, and whether they will stay the course before they gain recognition. "I realise nowadays many fledgling opera artists cannot wait [for success], and that they are really young," the 68-year-old Yuen says, noting that trainees complain about not having spare time, or "private space".

While recognising that traditional master-disciple relationships have become obsolete, Yuen says that Cantonese opera requires a lot of hard work and dedication

Aspiring performers must master fundamental techniques in areas from singing to acrobatics and stage kung fu, which are important components of the art form, before they start honing their skills. "If you enter this field, you have to follow [its rules]. Or you shouldn't choose to enter in the first place," he says.

Whatever the roles they eventually gravitate towards, the best performers start their training before puberty, as flexibility is required to build a foundation in martial arts and acrobatic techniques.

However, in Hong Kong full-time training in traditional opera skills can only be found at one academy, and only at the tertiary level. Mainland opera academies offer vocational training for students younger than 12.

The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) started its Chinese traditional theatre programme in 1999, offering diploma and certificate courses that cover both the practical and theoretical aspects of Cantonese opera. Students typically enrol at the age of 17, with Form Six or equivalent academic qualifications.

But most local candidates lack any previous training. This has plagued opera teacher Hung Hai for the nine years that he has taught on the APA's traditional theatre programme. In movement classes, Hung constantly finds himself having to adjust his expectations for under-trained students, while helping them discover their strengths in order to conceal their weaknesses.

The APA programme, which takes in 21 students at diploma level and the same number at advanced diploma level, might be expected to be more selective in its choice of candidates. But Hung says that the number of applicants from Hong Kong has remained low for years.

So even though "they have no fundamental skills", local applicants are likely to be accepted as long as they display a talent for performing and their academic qualifications meet the prerequisites, he says.

Most local candidates are amateurs who enrol out of personal interest, says Hung, who trained at the Guangdong Cantonese Opera School and the APA. Stella Lo Wing-yee, an advance diploma student in the traditional theatre programme, exemplifies this trend.

She was in already in her 20s and studying for an associate degree in surveying at City University when she first became attracted to Kunqu - the traditional opera of Suzhou. She was keen to learn Kunqu but settled for the APA's Cantonese opera course.

Now increasingly fond of the art form, Lo hopes to become a children's instructor, recognising that her late start effectively ruled out a professional career.

"By teaching children, I can nurture [interest] in them and their parents, who are also relatively young. When the children grow up, they'll become the audience."

Besides, opera training would not only give youngsters a better knowledge of Chinese culture but also improve their posture and vocals, she says.

Her classmate Ryder Chen Huijian, a native of Shunde, Guangdong province, feels the same way. "Being a professional performer is a transitory period. I ultimately want to do something educational," he says.

A graduate of the Guangdong Cantonese Opera School, 21-year-old Chen was considering further opera studies in Beijing, but opted for the APA course because he felt it would enrich his theoretical knowledge.

The sustainability of Cantonese opera "is not about having everyone learn it and a lot of people taking it up [as a profession]. Teaching is very important as well. Good teachers make good students and good audiences", he says.

The APA has announced plans to launch a Chinese opera school within a decade. Its BA degree course in Cantonese opera, which is undergoing accreditation, is due to start in September, although there has been little discussion on its intake.

It remains to be seen whether efforts to preserve Cantonese opera will pay off at the Xiqu Centre, the venue for traditional performing arts in the West Kowloon Cultural District that is scheduled for completion in 2016.

Will the 1,100-seat main theatre be filled with a new generation of opera fans, and the stage teem with promising young artists? The jury is out on how the centre's objective of promoting the development of Cantonese opera "in a contemporary context", can be met.

Cantonese opera: gruelling practice makes perfect

For all their offhand remarks, Cynthia Tsui Sin-yuen and her sister Sin-yan reveal the depth of passion for their craft when they are asked what they had to sacrifice to become Cantonese opera artists.

"Why would I see it as sacrifice?" they reply, almost in unison.

The question about what they had to forego is only natural. Both rising young talents in Cantonese opera, Cynthia, 27, and Tsui-yan, 24, have spent more than half their lives in gruelling practice sessions for their art.

The pair fell in love with Cantonese opera 16 years ago when their mother, a former opera performer, took them to see their first production, a staging of Princess Changping (Dai Nui Fa), and they started private lessons soon after. This "old-fashioned" taste in music left them isolated at school. Undaunted, the sisters have turned their passion into a career.

The pair now head East Sing Cantonese Opera Troupe, a company set up in 2000 by their father, a traditional Chinese physician. Cynthia, who goes by the stage name Yue Tung-sing, specialises in xiao sheng (young male) roles. "I like the straightforward nature of the male characters," says Cynthia, the more assertive of the sisters.

Sin-yan plays hua dan (young heroine) roles as Yue Ling-lung.

Her reticence belies a strong stage presence, which won her a Hong Kong Arts Development Award in 2009.

Perhaps the youngest pair of leads in Cantonese opera in Hong Kong, the sisters have won some respect for young practitioners.

They've even had a fan club (a common practice among established artists) for a few years, and they attract people of different ages and nationalities to their performances.

"They perform some alternative works, so they offer us more choices," says Ho Hoi-ling, 49, who has been attending their performances since 2006.

East Sing often presents classical scripts that more established troupes neglect. The performances sometimes involve a cast of over 100 people.

In June, for instance, they will be staging a large-scale production at Sha Tin Town Hall based on a Chinese creation myth.

Another fan, Gloria Poon, 36, says she finds the two sisters' performances very touching.

Poon can recall how they once moved an old woman in the audience to tears.

"There are so many distorted values in society nowadays. Their works convey a lot of positive messages, which encourage the audience," says Poon.