A Cantonese Opera performance Photo: IC

Li Weicong puts on makeup for a performance. Photo: Chen Xi/GT

On the stage, the lights dim, and in the darkness the melody of “Flowers Funeral Chant,” the classic song from one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels Dream of the Red Chamber, floats through the air. The curtain opens and the stage gradually grows brighter as a young lady carrying flowers walks slowly toward a wall. 

Before the stage, the audience stares enraptured as everyone is fully immersed in the beauty of the opera.  

Cantonese Opera, one of the major categories of Chinese Opera, continues to shine as it celebrates its 10-year anniversary of being listed as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

Stories of loyalty and love 

With roots in northern China, Cantonese Opera gradually developed in what is now South China’s Guangdong Province during the late 13th century. As it continued to develop, the art form spread to many other provinces and regions in South China as well as many nations in Southeast Asia. 

Most Cantonese operas are based on stories from Chinese mythology and history and tend to deal with educational themes such as loyalty, morality, patriotism and love. 

For example, some Cantonese Opera artists were influenced by the democratic revolutionary thought of the Chinese Revolution in 1911. They helped promote this thought among the populace through the Cantonese operas they wrote.

The traditional Chinese art form asks a lot from performers as it involves music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting. Additionally, the makeup, hair styles and costumes are also very exquisite and require a great deal of time to create and perfect.

Diligence and dedication 

“We need to learn how to put on the makeup, head wear, and clothing by ourselves. It felt a little cumbersome at first, but I have gradually grown used to it,” Chen Yunling, an actress who plays dan roles (female lead) for the Cantonese Opera in Guangzhou troupe, told the Global Times. 

She said most of the actors were greatly influenced by their families. For instance, she started to sing Cantonese Opera because of her grandfather. 

“At present, only a few people from our post-1980 generation are outstanding. We need to learn from those excellent and experienced artists from the post-1960 and post-1970 generations. Everyone will feel lost for a time, including me, but I persisted and kept improving myself. I hope I can be famous and not feel any regret when I get older,” Chen said. 

“I got in the business because my uncle used to sing Cantonese Opera. Being an actor in the opera requires us to love it from the bottom of our hearts because we do not earn much and need to practice a lot. Also, we need to pay close attention to our health. For example, we cannot drink too much in order to protect our throats,” Li Weicong, an actor who plays the sheng roles (male lead) in the troupe, told the Global Times.

“Singing Cantonese Opera feels like a mission to me, that is, to continue our traditional Chinese culture. And I sometimes feel I have matured because I can feel the life of the characters in the operas,” Li noted. 

Both actors noted that after Cantonese opera was listed as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage, they have had more opportunities to perform.

Moving forward

Looking into the future, Yu Yong, the head of the troupe, told the Global Times that he is confident about the future of Cantonese Opera. 

“Cantonese Opera is popular in many countries around the world. We perform Cantonese operas abroad about 100 times per year. We have been to the US, Canada, Europe, and the audiences have been very enthusiastic and interested in the music, the performers’ makeup and costumes, and Chinese culture,” said Yu.

However, the theater began facing many new challenges when it had to transform from a State-owned organization into a private enterprise. 

“Our financial support decreased after the Cantonese Opera in Guangzhou became an enterprise. In order to make enough profit to encourage scriptwriters to write operas, we decided to build a larger theater and sell tickets ourselves. We hope we can produce some classic art works in the future,” You Guihua, deputy head of the troupe, told the Global Times. 

He also pointed out that they need to bring in more young people. 

“We have cooperated with some art colleges and universities to foster young performers. Meanwhile, we encourage scriptwriters to try to inject some fresh elements into their stories to attract younger audiences,” he noted.

“In fact, many children prefer watching traditional Cantonese Opera over Western Opera because the way the story in the former is presented easier for them to understand. My daughter actually didn’t understand the opera version of fairy tale Snow White. If the story of Cantonese Opera is based on some interesting elements for children, they love to watch it,” Tan Feixia, a mother who had brought her 6-year-old daughter to the troupe’s theater to learn more about Cantonese Opera, told the Global Times.

“Cantonese Opera still survives after experiencing so many ups and downs in the past and it will continue shining on with its unique charm,” said Yu.

Newspaper headline: Continuing tradition