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Chinese opera practitioners seek new converts with festival offerings in Hong Kong

Song and dance: Hong Kong audiences will have the opportunity to appreciate traditional Chinese drama and musical theatre strands that go back to the third century

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 9:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 12:32pm

Chinese opera can be off-putting to those who don’t understand the intricacies of this ancient art form – with the complex lyrics compounded by the shrill sound of music and symbolic movements

Similar to Western opera, it requires tools to help audiences understand and appreciate its beauty beyond the flamboyant garments, extravagant production designs and acrobatic body movements.

“Chinese opera is very abstract,” says renowned Cantonese opera artist Yuen Siu-fai, who was among the cast at the Enlightenment of the Goddess of Mercy, Grand Birthday Celebration at Mount Heung Fa, a Cantonese opera performance put together by The Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong for this year’s Chinese Opera Festival.

“Just like watching football, you need to know the rules in order to understand and enjoy the game.”

Chinese opera – or hei kukin Cantonese and xiquin Putonghua – is a collective term for the traditional Chinese drama and musical theatre that can be traced back to the third century. It appears in more than 360 forms and each region has its own style, with variations in the use of language, costumes, music arrangements and stories. The most notable ones are Cantonese, Kunqu and Peking (Beijing).

Cantonese opera is rooted in Guangdong, southern China, where Cantonese is spoken. The art form blossomed in Hong Kong after the war and, according to Cantonese opera producer Barbara Tang, an average of at least four Cantonese opera performances are staged in the city every day. The art form is the first from Hong Kong to be listed in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2009 as an intangible cultural heritage that needs to be conserved.

New titles are still being created, one of which is Battle of the Throne, written by Hong Kong’s rising star Lai Yiu-wai. The show will be staged at Ko Shan Theatre and Yuen Long Theatre as part of the Chinese Opera Festival from August 4 to 6.

Cantonese opera is noted for the constantly evolving music and performance style as it absorbs influences from other art forms. Guangdong was among the first Chinese ports to open to foreign trade and it has historically been more open to foreign cultures. Western musical instruments, such as the saxophone and violin, have occasionally been added to Cantonese opera to produce a more dynamic and textured sound.

Kunqu, which is believed to have started around the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), displays a different character. It is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera and the root of many opera forms. The music and performances are more structured and the singing is performed in an ancient dialect from central China. It is often described as the most elegant form of Chinese opera because of its melodic and soft singing and the high literary value.

The Peony Pavilion, written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, is hailed as one of the most important and precious titles of all Chinese operas. In 2001, it was listed as an intangible cultural heritage item with Unesco. This year’s Chinese Opera Festival presents The White Silk Gown,performed by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu, the birthplace of Kunqu. The Hong Kong show is a new edition of the classic curated by author Pai Hsien-yungand it promises to be a treat.

There are rarer forms of Chinese opera. Wu opera, originated in Wuzhou, today’s Zhejiang province, is often hailed as the ancestor of Peking opera. Wu opera is more than 400 years old and was originally performed in villages. Besides singing, Wu opera is characterised by acrobatic movements. Movements of the arms and wrists are the highlights and performers do not wear long sleeved costumes like those in other forms of Chinese opera. Zhejiang Wu Opera Research Centre has brought excerpts from titles to Hong Kong for the Chinese Opera Festival.

Hong Kong audiences will also enjoy Yue opera at the Chinese Opera Festival. Yue opera,also known as Shaoxing opera, is characterised by graceful singing and lyrical dramas. Shanghai Yue Opera Group will perform three showcases in August.

Yuen says many Chinese opera titles were created during the Yuan dynasty, when the Han Chinese came under Mongolian rule in the 13th century. They were written and performed as a quiet revolt against political oppression.

“People could not talk about their anger and frustration towards the Mongolian rulers at the time, hence they relied on these artistic creations to vent their emotions,” Yuen says.

One of the titles, such as The Legend of the White Snake, was created during that time. Adapted from the Chinese literary classic of the same name, the story revolves around a white snake spirit that becomes a human after thousands of years of training. She falls in love with a human but when her origin is discovered, she is imprisoned in a tower forever. The title has been performed in different forms of Chinese opera over the centuries.

“On the surface, it is a tragic love story. But in fact, it is a protest against social injustice,” Yuen says. “White Snake hasn’t done anything wrong and yet she has to suffer a great deal. It asks [the] audience to contemplate and relate themselves to the environment we are living in.”

Tang says that appreciating Chinese opera, whether it is Cantonese, Kunqu or Peking, requires a lot of imagination from the audience, similar to viewing a Chinese landscape painting.

“One table and two chairs can be seen as what they are, but they can also be interpreted as a mountain and a towering building, depending on the story,” Tang says.

“We perform with minimal sets because Chinese opera is rooted in the community and was performed in the streets. How can you build an extravagant stage in the streets? We have to keep everything simple.”

Even big scenes like battlefields can be performed with simple props. Today, some productions feature extravagant sets to draw audiences, but Tang says that it is not how Chinese opera existed originally. Many of the performances were staged in simple settings such as tea houses.

She adds that many body movements are symbolic: a big stride forward means entering a different time and space, while a split signifies defeat in a battle.

Tang’s troupe is dedicated to promoting Cantonese opera to an international audience. “We need to groom new audiences who know how to appreciate the art form properly, otherwise our art cannot move forward,” he says.