HK Magazine Archive

A Night at the Cantonese Opera: Behind the Scenes

We step behind the curtain to see what goes on behind the scenes of Hung Hom's Ko Shan Theatre. Photos by Kirk Kenny.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:48pm

“If newcomers are interested in watching Cantonese opera, they first need to understand the inspiration and philosophy behind it,” says Patrick Tang, owner of the Bright Sing Cantonese Opera Troupe, which regularly performs at Hung Hom’s Ko Shan Theatre.

There are three basic kinds of opera:

Love Stories aka “talented scholars and lovely ladies”— the guy has talents and the girl has looks. One of the characters falls in love with another, and it generally ends in either a marriage or a death.

Martial Stories in which performers dress as generals and warlords and perform action sequences, which include stylized martial arts and acrobatics.

Comedies which are often performed during Chinese New Year, and are all about creating a happy ambiance. Comically exaggerated costumes that emphasize physical imperfections are commonly used.

“A good place to start would be the love stories, which are relatively easier to understand,” says Tang. “But if they crave more details and insight into the timelessly refined art, then they should opt for the plays with more action and observe every movement of the performers.”

The Actors

A) Actors get a literal facelift: They use tape to pull back the skin from their faces, enlarging their eyes and smoothing out wrinkles. 

B) Actors use symbolic movements to convey meaning. Someone travelling long distances would take long, swift steps.

C) Traditionally all actors were male, so female characters are portrayed with heavy use of a nasal falsetto. This is difficult to do well: The singer must force his or her voice through the nose while maintaining a smooth and sonorous texture.

Sideburns, wigs and beards are all made with real hair. This allows them to be straightened with a clothes iron. People grow their hair for years to sell, so the longer and better-kept the hair, the more money it is worth.

Actors for female roles glue sideburns to their faces to slim down the shape.

Different costume colors have different meanings. A large a mount of blue on a character's costume indicates they are cruel or arrogant.

The stage of an opera is fairly sparse: Typical sets include some chairs, a table, and occasionally a raised platform.

The Musicians

From left to right: huqin (general bowed strings), percussion, gaohu, yangqin, zheng, pipa, dizi/flute

A) Musicians strongly value their independence and creativity. The more traditional the musician, the more he will improvise. The percussion section is always improvised.

B) The number of musicians is flexible, with seven to 20 instrumentalists depending on the troupe’s budget. 

C) Western instruments are sometimes used in place of or in addition to Chinese ones. The gaohu (a higher-pitched version of the erhu) might be replaced by the violin, for example, or a pipa with the guitar. Many ensembles include celli for a thicker harmonic texture.

D) In between arias and dialogues, the ensemble often improvises a tune based on the songs sung in the opera.

There is no conductor—the orchestra simply follows the performers' actions and singing. The scripts and music scores are typically just lyrics and song titles. An extensive set of melodies is used across the operas. Different lyrics are paired with different melodies depending on the particular performance.

The Veteran: Sun Kim-long

The Playwright: Man Wah

The New Blood: Yuen Tak-man

The Teacher: Stella Ma

Shows to See