Book review: Chinese Opera: The Actor's Craft, by Siu Wang-ngai with Peter Lovrick

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm

Chinese Opera: The Actor's Craft
by Siu Wang-ngai with Peter Lovrick
HKU Press
3 stars

Oliver Chou

It is impossible to cover in a single volume all 360 styles of Chinese opera that exist today. But this latest publication endeavours to illustrate various conventions and performing techniques used in Chinese opera to communicate between the performers and their audience.

Mastering those conventions, including some subtle ones, is the key to appreciating the time-honoured art form.

Grasping the basics is the main objective underlying this volume. But it makes no attempt to differentiate between, say, a minimalist Peking opera and an opulent Cantonese opera. Nor does it make any references to the musical aspects.

The book's strength lies in the analysis of the visual, or The Actor's Craft, as the title suggests.

Siu Wang-ngai is a professional photographer whose 200-plus shots taken of various Chinese opera troupes performing in Hong Kong from 1985 to 1993 form the basis of the book.

Peter Lovrick, a professor in English and the book's co-author, calls these stunning images "an alphabet of Chinese opera stage language". Categorising those action pictures is no easy task; using them to decode an art form is even more difficult. But that is exactly what this book does.

Through five categories - stage movement, props, weapons, costumes, and special skills - the book offers detailed descriptions of 35 facets of Chinese operatic stagecraft. Each comes with an image, sometimes more than one, to help readers appreciate the effects the text tries to convey.

The narrative strives to provide - briefly and at times repetitiously - the context of the story in which the technique is applied. In so doing, the text inevitably reads like extended photo captions, and the book becomes more like a coffee-table read than an account of Chinese opera.

Still, despite their brevity, the introduction and epilogue are helpful in putting the subject into perspective. The Chinese-English glossary and appendixes are also useful references. Perhaps it would take the book to a higher level if it had featured more substantive essays by experts in academia and in the industry.

A supplemental DVD would also help those chapters on the actors' skills and movements where words or still shots fail to convey the full dynamics. And it would make up for the lack of musical coverage in the book, which is a serious issue for music aficionados.