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The Modern Face of Cantonese Opera

Picture of Matthew Keegan
Updated: 16 May 2018
Cantonese opera is probably unlike anything you have heard or seen before. It is a visual feast of bright costumes, dramatic make-up, vocal acrobatics and even martial arts. Today, the centuries-old art form is struggling to survive, as newer forms of entertainment dominate. However, younger performers like Mitche Choi are working to help reinvent Cantonese opera in a way that will appeal to modern audiences.

Decline and revival

With a history spanning more than three hundred years, Cantonese opera (also known as Yueju opera) is a unique part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity. In 2009, it was included as part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Formerly one of the city’s most popular forms of entertainment, Cantonese opera has faced a decline over the years as pop music and Western forms of entertainment have dominated. Today, there is just one theater left in Hong Kong that is dedicated to Cantonese opera.

There is some hope for the opera, however. Younger performers like Mitche Choi are spearheading the revival of this unique music tradition with plans to increase its appeal to modern audiences. Choi has been practicing Cantonese opera for the past 14 years; she started at the age of 12 and hasn’t looked back since. “The uniqueness of Cantonese opera is what first piqued my curiosity,” says Choi. “I just felt it was really lively and vibrant and really colorful because of the costumes and the make-up.”

A historical musical tradition

Cantonese opera is indeed a visual spectacle. You don’t need to understand Cantonese or be familiar with the stories of Chinese history and mythology to enjoy it. The performances alone are entertainment enough, with their spectacle of costumes, extravagant sets and famously unique singing style.

“In Cantonese opera, the costumes actually show the personality of the characters as well as the make-up,” says Choi. “Certain colors of the make-up reveal the characters’ emotions and portray their personality.”

The dramatic make-up that the performers wear plays a vital role. According to Choi, it usually takes around two hours to apply prior to each performance. It all seems worth it though as there are few other art forms that convey the mystery and charm of ancient China as effectively as Cantonese opera. “When I watch Cantonese opera, I feel like I’m put in a time machine and brought back to ancient China,” says Choi. “When you watch a Cantonese opera performance, you’re actually able to connect with the livelihood, the mannerisms and even the values and beliefs of the people from four hundred years ago.”

Updating tradition for the modern age

However, the current challenge Choi and her fellow Cantonese opera performers face is bringing a historical musical tradition into the present with more modern appeal and relevance.

“The younger generation often regards it as an outdated form of entertainment, and therefore, the audience consists mostly of old people,” says Choi. Nevertheless, Choi says that, as a young performer herself, there are a few things she’s doing to preserve, promote and develop this art form. “I’ve been trying to look for a lot of young people in the industry to create performances and events to attract other youngsters. Also, I’m working on creating innovative performances to appeal to a modern audience, as well as giving talks to the English-speaking community and some workshops in order to introduce them to Cantonese opera.”

Mulan’s many faces and talents

Choi has been working professionally as a Cantonese opera performer since she graduated from university in 2013. It’s common for females to play male characters in Cantonese opera, as is the case with Choi’s favorite character, Mulan. “The character that I enjoy playing the most is Mulan. This is because Mulan is an actual female that pretends to play a male role and so it’s a reflection of who I am on stage.”

Cantonese opera incorporates singing (usually distinctive falsetto punctuated by gongs), as well as acting, dancing, and a form of martial arts called Wing Chun, that originated from China’s Guangdong Province. The productions tell stories of romance, war, historical events, and mythical stories. There is a lot of story to tell as some of the shows can last for over three hours.

Keeping Cantonese alive

Aside from the entertainment aspect, Choi believes that Cantonese opera has an important part to play in helping to preserve the Cantonese language and culture. “Language is a big part of it. Language embodies our culture. The culture of southern China is conveyed and preserved in the Cantonese language itself.”

“I believe that it’s important to continue to develop this art in order to preserve it,” says Choi. “I think that it can be done through education and also through creating innovative ways for the plays to appeal to a modern audience.”

It may have suffered a decline in popularity over the years, but Cantonese opera is well on its way to making a revival, with the likes of Choi to sing its praises. One thing’s for sure, the show is far from over.