AUSTRIA IS KNOWN for its famous Vienna Boys Choir. Russia has the Bolshoi Ballet, Italy is the birthplace of western opera and Hong Kong is the domicile of Cantonese opera. However, while most parts of the world are busy perfecting their particular art form, Cantonese opera, once considered key entertainment for the masses, has largely faded into the background over the years, thanks to the government's laissez-faire approach and a lack of funding for further development. Opera theatres that once lined Hong Kong's main streets have now almost disappeared, with the exception of the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, which is dedicated solely to hosting Chinese opera performances. While western entertainment since the 1970s can be partly blamed for drawing crowds away from the indigenous art form, it is the opera's unaltered image that has played a role in its diminishing popularity. Rex Ng Kwok-leung, president of the Utopia Cantonese Opera Workshop (UCOW), a group that aims to promote the art, said: 'Cantonese opera is not perceived as a contemporary art form because it has basically remained unchanged in the last 40 to 50 years, unlike film for example, which has evolved with changes in society. People are no longer watching the same types of films as five decades ago.' Cantonese opera's failure to morph into something that appeals to contemporary audiences also explains why its fan base has been limited to middle-aged and elderly women who have grown up watching the art all their lives. 'The audience pool is limited in the sense that those who go are always the same people. It is very difficult to get new people to start watching,' Mr Ng said. According to Mr Ng, Cantonese opera does not need drastic transformation but only improvement and enhancement. He equates this change to the way writing tools have evolved. 'We once used feather calligraphy pens for writing before evolving to ink pens and ballpoint pens and now printing. Chinese opera needs to change in the same way,' Mr Ng said. Dealing with the opera's ageing image is not the only problem. With the present group of big-name performers getting older and a general apathetic attitude towards the profession, few are interested in joining an industry that is in the doldrums. Even for the few who are interested, it is hard to get the right start. Unlike other forms of art that concentrate on a single skill such as dancing or singing, the Chinese performing art calls for artists to be multifaceted. Barbara Tang Kung-pik, a Cantonese opera producer for Spring Glory Productions, said: 'You have to be trained in many ways - from adhering to the strict rules that stipulate how you sing to the way you carry yourself, [knowing] martial arts, what you wear and right down to how you get dressed.' To the average person, Cantonese opera may sound like a culmination of loud noises, but audiences have to learn to develop an appreciation for the art. The performers in the opera use very subtle gestures to reflect a sentiment or message, such as through the long pheasant feathers on their helmets, the way their sleeves flow, or their hand movements and the how they walk. Earlier, aspiring performers were typically enrolled at a young age as live-in apprentices by a master to make maximum use of their talent while their bones were still supple. The master controlled the apprentice's destiny and he or she would only be given the opportunity to perform when the master considered them ready. However, in a profession where there are few guarantees of financial rewards and there is growing importance of formal education, not many Hong Kong parents are likely to allow their children to pursue this art form. 'After years of training you could still end up as an extra,' Ms Tang said. According to Ms Tang, opera life is not easy either. Apart from hours of tough training, performers often have to deal with politics in the troupe and only a few determined people can make a career of it. Aspiring performers need to first enrol in opera lessons before they get an opportunity to perform. 'If you are good and show potential, then someone will hopefully notice you,' Ms Tang said However, she said without the necessary financial backing it was very difficult to advance one's career. For the few who do manage to succeed, the returns can be very lucrative. According to Ms Tang, principal performers in leading roles can earn between $10,000 and $35,000 for each performance, depending on the scale of the show. Musicians earn between $700 and $3,000 and dressers, who dress performers in very specific ways, can earn about $900 to $1,500 each.