|Experimental Cantonese opera "Farewell My Concubine (New Adaptation)" will make its Korean debut at the National Gugak Center in Seoul, Sept. 20. Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority|
Revival of Cantonese opera blends tradition with modernity to reach new audiences
By Kwak Yeon-soo
HONG KONG ― Cantonese opera is arguably one of the most popular art forms in Hong Kong. It is a comprehensive multi-disciplinary art form using vocals, instrumental music and dancing to tell a story.
It is generally believed that Cantonese opera evolved out of "Nanxi," or Southern drama which was performed in public theaters in Hangzhou back in the 12th century. This centuries-old art form was once the primary source of entertainment for Hong Kong residents, but the rise of the film industry and the advent of television in the late 1960s led to a decline in its popularity.
By the 1970s, the opera business started to decline and only a few theaters could afford to continue operating. The remaining theaters carried on the legacy and tried to revive public interest in Cantonese opera.
Despite these challenges, the art form was inscribed onto the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Ten years later, the Xiqu Centre opened to the public with an aim to preserve and promote the rich heritage of "xiqu," or Chinese opera.
|Naomi Chung, head of Xiqu Centre and producer of "Farewell My Concubine" / Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority|
"In the 1950s and 1960s, Cantonese opera was the only form of entertainment for Hong Kong citizens. Entering the 1970s, we started to have TVs and the film industry started booming. Cantonese opera came down really fast," she said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.
"Many opera troupes went to Malaysia, Singapore and mainland China to perform. Some famous Cantonese opera singers moved to the silver screen. Despite the difficulties, some insisted to perform in Hong Kong."
To bring renewed interest to Cantonese opera, Chung advocates for a modern approach, blending traditional techniques with contemporary stage and music elements. She was at the forefront of introducing new adaptations with shorter runtimes and smaller groups of performers.
The Xiqu Centre's first ever commissioned work "Farewell My Concubine" premiered in 2016 with a runtime of 75 minutes.
"Unlike normal Cantonese opera troupes that have a staff of more than 70 people, there are only 24 people in our troupe (experimental black box theater) including actors, scenery, audio and lighting. When creating a script, our target was to make the show less than 90 minutes whereas other performances last for three to four hours," she explained.
The production has received overwhelming reviews for performances in various cities in Asia. It was recognized with a Best Experimental Xiqu award at the China Performing Arts Expo 2018 and an Honorary Credential award at the 2018 and 2019 Xiqu Opera Black Box Festival.
The troupe is bringing "Farewell My Concubine" to the National Gugak Center in southern Seoul on Sept. 20 and 21. This new adaptation of a Peking opera classic tells of the love story of Xiang Yu, the warlord of the ancient Chu Kingdom, and his beloved Concubine Yu Ji.
"There will be three actors and 10 musicians. Each actor will have a dresser backstage," she said.
On stage, actors will perform using various dance-like gestures, with stylized makeup featuring exaggerated colors and lines. The performance will be in Cantonese with Korean, English and Chinese subtitles.
|Experimental Cantonese opera "Farewell My Concubine (New Adaptation)" will be staged at National Gugak Center in Seoul, Sept. 20-21 / Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority|
Chung explained that Cantonese opera and Peking opera share the same origins and similar characters appear in both disciplines. However, the music and singing style is quite different.
"We are very much alike, but the percussion of Cantonese opera is not exactly the same as Peking opera. The instruments and singing style are quite different," she said.
"Several Western instruments such as cello, violin and saxophone have been incorporated and are now regularly included in our repertoire."
"Cantonese opera is market-driven. That means we're totally commercial."
Chung discussed her plans to reach younger and diverse audiences. According to her, the average age of Cantonese opera audience members is above 45.
"When students graduate from university, they work really hard at their jobs for 10-15 years and sacrifice their hobbies. They rarely go to theaters or the cinema. But when they become 40-somethings and move up to management, they start spending some time on their hobbies," Chung said.
She talked about how Cantonese opera holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Hong Kong because there are few people in the industry, including opera actors, continuing the tradition.
"We want to preserve and develop it because all those productions we are performing are mainly from scripts from the 1950s and 1960s. We still want to create new things and bring younger audiences closer to us," she said.
That's where she expressed interest in international collaborations, particularly with Korea, to overcome language and cultural barriers, highlighting the potential for a cross-cultural exchange that could breathe new life into this ancient art form.
"It's difficult to communicate because of language and cultural barriers, but we would love to collaborate with Korea on a new production and have Hong Kong actors and Korean actors work on a production together," Chung said.