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What Chinese Opera fans in Hong Kong can look forward to during two-month festival

Two-month festival introduces Hongkongers to Pingdiao, Puxian and Xiqin opera styles, and enables mainland Chinese artists to perform with local stars

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 9:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 10:52am

Culturally and geographically linked to Guangdong, Hong Kong takes pride in being where Cantonese opera continues to flourish. The city is also a centre-stage for other genres and regional styles of Chinese opera, including Peking opera and Kunqu that are familiar to audiences locally and abroad.

Audiences curious about the depth and diversity of Chinese opera will be treated with a feast at this year’s Chinese Opera Festival, from June 14 to August 12, as a number of troupes specialising in rarer forms of the art such as Pingdiao, Puxian and Xiqin will make their debut at the multivenue event.

“Pingdiao, Puxian and Xiqin operas have a long history and were inscribed in the first listing of [the] National Intangible Cultural Heritage of China in 2006,” says Dinah Choo, a manager and Chinese opera specialist at the festival’s organiser, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. “Each of them features special stage actions. The festival is believed to bring our audience the diverse regional genres noted for their definite charm.”

Performed in the Ninghai dialect in circuitous singing to relatively gentle and subtle tunes, Nanhai Pingdiao is, however, best known for its exclusive stunts. One of the signature performances is called shuaya – tusk stunt or teeth playing. Its performers hold pairs of wild boars’ buckteeth in their mouths while they sing, read and dance-act. The stunt has been said to share the same status as the face-changing stunt of Sichuan opera. The Pingdiao Art Heritage Centre of Ninghai, formerly known as the Pingdiao Troupe of Ninghai and the Yue Opera Troupe of Ninghai, will bring titles including Meeting the Judge from Li Huiniang and Jinlian Killing the Bandit Lijiao to the festival for the first time.

Puxian opera is one of the five major opera genres of Fujian. Originally known as Xinghua opera of the Putian and Xianyou regions, Puxian is dubbed the “living fossil” of Southern Opera of the Song and Yuan dynasties because of its long history and repertoire of about 5,000 titles. Puppetry has a key influence on the performances of Puxian opera, which is performed in Puxian dialect.

In addition to its rich vocal style and stage presence, Puxian opera is also known for its stunts. “Sedan-chair carrying”; “chair routine”; “floor-sweeping skirt”; “the three-legged cane” and

the hoe routine” are among the visual characteristics. They will be performed by Fujian Puxian Theatre, also for the first time at the festival, bringing Hong Kong audience titles such as The Imperial Scholar and the Beggar and Thrice Begging Fan Lihua.

Hong Kong audiences who grew up with Cantonese opera might know little about Xiqin opera, but it is believed that the two actually share the same origin.

Born from the Xiqin singing style in Ming dynasty, Xiqin opera continued to evolve and its form began to mature in the early Qing dynasty. The Haifeng County Xiqin Opera Heritage Centre is now the only professional troupe specialising in Xiqin opera, and they will also debut at the festival.

For example, Executing Own Son at the Gate, a pihuang play of Xiqin Opera, shares similar content with Liulang Executing His Son, the Cantonese Opera play in classic singing style
Dinah Choo, manager and Chinese opera specialist, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

To show the shared roots between Xiqin and Cantonese operas, classic titles will be staged side by side.

“For example, Executing Own Son at the Gate, a pihuang play of Xiqin Opera, shares similar content with Liulang Executing His Son, the Cantonese Opera play in classic singing style. The former is a representative play of the laosheng [old male] role while the later has its own distinctive singing styles, including the reprimanding tone of Yang Liulang and the singing style of Mu Gua,” Choo says.

Pihuang is a singing style characterised by couplets of seven-word or 10-word sentences, often complemented by music from a huqin.

Exchanges between mainland and local artists are a key feature in this year’s festival. Classic titles will be performed by renowned local masters, including Law Kar-ying and Wan Fai-yin to show the similarities and differences between Cantonese opera and Xiqin opera.

Local performers welcome the festival’s initiative in bringing troupes from outside Hong Kong for interaction. Cantonese opera artist Hilvinn Wong Hai-wing says the festival has been striving to open audiences’ eyes to various genres of Chinese opera, but more needs to be done to promote the art form to a larger audience.

“In addition to grooming young Cantonese opera audiences, young people should be encouraged to experience other types of Chinese operas if Hong Kong really wants to be a hub of Chinese opera in the region,” Wong says.

Other groups performing at the festival include Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe of Shaoxing and National Peking Opera Company.