11 June 2018
A Cultural Feast
Few art forms can evoke the mystery and charm of ancient China as eloquently as Cantonese opera. In Hong Kong today, this centuries-old tradition of story-telling through musical theatre is enjoying a resurgence, with major events taking place in theatres, town halls and temporary bamboo stages; performances held at universities and schools, in streets and parks, and at private gatherings organised by local operatic singing clubs.
Audiences of all ages remain enchanted by the colourful costumes, distinctive voices and intricate gestures rich with symbolism that define this distinctive form of entertainment, which originated in southern China and has evolved over time into hundreds of distinctive regional performing styles.
Hong Kong's variation is recognised on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and to keep the tradition alive for generations to come, Cantonese opera has been incorporated into the music curriculum of primary and secondary education since 2003.
Various venues offer opportunities to enjoy a performance, including the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, a vintage venue dedicated to Cantonese opera, and soon, the new Xiqu Centre due to open later this year as the first major performing arts venue of the West Kowloon Cultural District.
The highlight of the year's operatic calendar is the annual Chinese Opera Festival, a two-month-long celebration of operatic culture performed by top virtuosi and maestros in the field. This year, the programme running from June to August covers genres that have been inscribed onto the List of National Intangible Cultural Heritage of China, including Peking, Kunqu, Yue, Diaoqiang, Pingdiao, Puxian and Xiqin opera, as well as local Cantonese opera. Apart from the performances on stage, there will be guided appreciation sessions, talks and exhibitions.
Opening the festival this year is Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe's full-version performance of The Palace of Eternal Life. Led by Kunqu Opera virtuoso Cai Zhengren and supported by actors and actresses from different generations and cohorts, the troupe presents the everlasting tragedy of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty and his beloved woman Yang Yuhuan in a time of turbulence. Over a decade after its debut in 2007, this classic now returns with an all-star cast.
In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the death of maestro Cheng Yanqiu, one of the top four artists in the dan (female) role in Peking Opera and founder of the Cheng school, three full-length operas, namely Consort Mei, The Unicorn Pouch and Anecdotes about Empress Wu Zetian, will be performed by the Second Troupe of the China National Peking Opera Company with winner of Plum Blossom Award for Chinese Theatre Li Haiyan as the lead. Li will exemplify the elegant style of the Cheng school.
After its debut in Hong Kong in 2013, the Xinchang Diaoqiang Heritage Protection and Development Centre of Zhejiang returns with the classic piece The Battle at Jiujiang, comedy The Old Water-carrier and five excerpts. In addition, there will be performances of Ninghai Pingdiao Opera.
Audiences will be introduced to the rarely performed shuaya (tusk stunt), the incredible stage skill on par with bian lian (face-changing stunt), and the quaintness, varied singing styles and deep-rooted tradition of Puxian opera, which preserves the traits of southern opera of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Fujian Puxian Theatre will bring The Imperial Scholar and the Beggar, Thrice Begging Fan Lihua and excerpts from its classic repertoire to showcase the unique beauty of this ancient art form.
Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe of Shaoxing will return with a range of performances, from gripping and action-packed to comedy. Wu Fenghua, national class-one performer and two-time winner of Plum Blossom Award for Chinese Theatre, will be joined by Wu Suying (Lu school), Chen Fei (Fu school) and Zhang Lin (Yin school) in these full-length operas promising a cultural feast for the eyes and ears.
It is widely believed that bangziqiang (clapper tunes) in Cantonese Opera owes its origin to Xiqin opera. In view of their close connection, interrelated stories from their repertoire are juxtaposed for comparison. In a separate programme, representative bearer of Xiqin opera Lu Weiping will lead the Haifeng Country Xiqin Opera Heritage Centre in performing excerpts from Xiqin opera, followed by a performance by local Cantonese opera artists Law Ka-ying, Wan Fai-yin and Cheng Wing-mui.
With renowned actor Yuen Siu-fai as the playwright and the lead, Cantonese opera The Return of Lady Wenji will feature a strong cast of veterans and current artists.
Apart from the rich array of captivating performances, the festival organisers have also arranged a variety of extension activities including lectures, film screenings, artists' talks and exhibitions to facilitate the appreciation of Chinese opera from different angles. Separately, to mark the 60th anniversary of the debut of the Yue opera The Dream of the Red Chamber, Shanghai Yue Opera Group will present special guided appreciation programmes so audiences may feel the enduring charm of this masterpiece.
The Chinese Opera Festival is organised by the Leisure and Cultural and Services Department, with performances staged at various venues across Hong Kong.
Cantonese Opera Festival