Glass speaks to three masters of Chinese Opera – Professor Tsai Tsan-huang, Man Chin-sui and Pai Hsien-yung

Passion and prose – Chinese Opera in its many forms is a triumph of spirit and reinvention but can it survive the threat of modernisation? Glass speaks to three masters of this timeless art


For almost two millennia the numerous regional branches of Chinese Opera have mirrored the culture and philosophy of China, reflecting the movement of the times and reinforcing virtues such as faithfulness, patriotism, love and morality. During the Cultural Revolution the art form was banished. Performers and playwrights were persecuted and the majority of opera troupes were dissolved. All plays were banned with the exception of the eight “model operas” approved by Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing.

However, the Opera survived and in 1976, following the fall of the Gang of Four (the communist party’s most extreme figures), staged a massive comeback. New plays were penned and classics were reinstated in the national repertoire. Of the branches that survive today the most prominent, Beijing, Kun and Cantonese, all feature the four essential elements of singing, acting, narrative and martial arts but each has fundamental differences. The Beijing (also known as Peking) Opera is widely regarded as the ambassador of Chinese traditional culture and was the first to be exported to foreign countries by legendary artist Mei Lanfang in 1945.

Kun is dubbed the mother of Chinese Opera because of its influence on the other operatic forms and with its melodic music and delicate singing style, is arguably the most refined. Cantonese Opera, a product of southern China’s culture, is famed for its stunning martial and gymnastic skills. All have artfully adapted themselves over the years to ensure their survival but with modern innovations Chinese Opera is edging towards losing its identity. Three masters explain how stripping the art form back to basics is the only way forward.

Photography by Doug BruceChinese Opera. Photography by Doug Bruce

Professor Tsai Tsan-huang is Director of the academic archive for Cantonese Opera, Chinese University of Hong Kong. From UNESCO’s inscription of Kun and Cantonese Opera onto its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, to famed Chinese film director Chen Kaige’s celebration of Beijing Opera in Farewell My Concubine, Chinese Opera is no doubt a national treasure. Why is that so?
Chinese Opera is a culture that Chinese people can share with each other. When we watch it we share the same identity.

Chinese Opera Chinese Opera

Innovations such as casting up-andcoming performers for plum roles, penning new scripts and abridging traditional storylines have helped Chinese Opera win new legions of fans. What’s your take on the modernisation of China’s cultural deity?
We are a part of the global community and two trends have emerged as a result – embracing modernity and revisiting tradition. Contact with people from different cultures serves as a catalyst that helps us create cutting-edge styles. But at the same time we start asking ourselves “What have we got?” and dig into our past to see what’s there. When practitioners ponder injecting modern energy into the art form they must bear in mind its four essential elements. Chinese Opera is different from, say, Italian Opera which is centred on singing. You can’t recognise the performers after they have put on layers of makeup. It is similar to donning a mask that enables them to metamorphose into another character.

Is Chinese Opera undergoing a renaissance?
I’m not quite sure. Yes, pop singers such as Jay Chou and Leehom Wang and classical composers like Academy Award winner Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) borrow a lot of ideas from Beijing Opera but I think whoever wants to factor Chinese Opera into their work needs to go below the surface to search for the value of Chinese Opera and culture. It’s not as straightforward as applying the percussive aspect in their work. The big question we should ask ourselves is how does the art form function in this particular time and place? If more and more practitioners bring the value of the art form to their work then there will be a renaissance.

Legendary Cantonese opera actor Mr Man Chin-sui prepares for a performance. Photography by Doug BruceLegendary Cantonese opera actor Mr Man Chin-sui prepares for a performance. Photography by Doug Bruce

What is the most common misunderstanding people have about Chinese Opera?
Chinese Opera is a generic term which can’t be found in China. We have Beijing Opera, Cantonese Opera, Kun Opera, etc. It’s a bit like Chinese food in a way. In China Towns, all kinds of Chinese cuisine are called Chinese food but in China the term is nonexistent. Different kinds of Chinese Opera can be quite different in terms of style, singing, and lyrics but they are all related. Chinese Opera is like a genealogy tree.

Chinese Opera’s fan base consists mainly of adults and the elderly. What are your thoughts on how to stimulate youths’ interest in the art so that the torch can be passed?
Pop singers are doing quite well in introducing Chinese Opera to youths but I think it is only a start. Training great performers doesn’t suffice. When I was an undergraduate student the Taiwanese government focused on training the audience and subsidised a lot of workshops which taught them how to appreciate, read, and even sing Chinese Opera. If you can stir your audience’s interest in this “dying” art form they will revive it by going to performances regularly. Providing courses and workshops for the public is of paramount importance to the survival of Chinese Opera. Otherwise who is going to support it after all?

Photography by Doug BrucePhotography by Doug Bruce

What makes Chinese Opera a cultural gem that stands the test of time?
Being able to connect with people’s lives is the reason why Chinese Opera is a survivor. Chinese people not only need it for entertainment but also for preserving their cultural identity. Now that both Kun Opera and Cantonese Opera have been acknowledged by UNESCO for their outstanding value to humanity, Chinese Opera has become a cultural gem that should be shared and appreciated by the global community.

Man Chin-sui is a legendary Cantonese Opera actor. In 2001, he founded the school Opera Arts of MCF with his wife, famed Opera actress Leung Siu-sum, to spread the art of Cantonese Opera. You began your career at the tender age of 13 and soon earned the nickname Wonder Boy. Can you tell us your first memory of Cantonese Opera?
I was born into a family of Cantonese Opera performers and started learning the art form out of filial piety as a kid. My parents wanted me to follow in their footsteps since they believed Cantonese Opera could bring me fame and fortune. When I first started performing in my teens I was charmed by the glamorous side of the industry and aspired to be a performer of the highest calibre. Also, I received little education as I came from a poor background so Cantonese Opera seemed to be my only career option.

Photography by Doug BrucePhotography by Doug Bruce

You have performed in more than 100 productions and recorded over 180 CDs since the ’50s. How has the role Cantonese Opera plays in Hong Kong evolved since?
Thanks to other entertainment businesses such as cinema and television, the outlook for Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong isn’t particularly rosy. Also, Cantonese Opera troupes from Mainland China have upped the ante of the game and we are lagging behind. For instance, Cantonese Opera productions here now feature subtitles, a practice borrowed from our Mainland counterparts. We embrace this change as it makes sure that local performers memorise every line in the script to show their respect for the audience. We have fewer resources compared with the Mainland where rehearsal venues can be used for free. If Sunbeam Theatre shuts down in 2012, there will be no proper venue left for showing Cantonese Opera productions in Hong Kong. Cantonese Opera is in danger of becoming a critically acclaimed commercial flop.

From Chinese animations to Singaporean productions performed in English, Cantonese Opera has been going out on a limb to attract young audience in recent years. Does it work?
In the face of Western arts’ popularity the local Cantonese Opera scene has undergone transformations such as dressing performers in baroque costumes and using symphony orchestras. But the audience’s response has been lukewarm. Radical innovation isn’t the answer – salvaging the essential elements of Cantonese Opera such as martial and gymnastic skills and singing is the way out.

Photography by Doug BrucePhotography by Doug Bruce

Pai Hsien-yung is a world-renowned Taiwanese writer and Kun Opera producer. His critically acclaimed adaptations have toured internationally and have been instrumental in helping Kun Opera regain its prestige. You fell in love with Kun Opera as a child when you saw the legendary Mei Lanfang perform in Shanghai. Which play was he in and why was it so profound?
He was performing the acts A Walk in the Garden and An Interrupted Dream from the famous Kun Opera The Peony Pavilion which is about mourning the passing of spring. It was 1945 – the Second World War had just ended and he hadn’t performed for eight whole years. He’s famed for Beijing Opera so the performance was an exception. My adaptation of The Peony Pavilion premiered in 2004 so the play and I are meant to be. Even though I was only nine the music has been ‘haunting’ me ever since (laughs). It is so beautiful and also a little bit sad.

How did you go from being a fan of Kun Opera to producing it?
I’ve been a writer all my life and Kun Opera has always been my passion. It is such a beautiful art that had been in decline for such a long time. I’ve been trying to rescue it since the ‘80s. Whenever I have the chance I give lectures to tell people how beautiful Kun Opera is and what a glorious history it has. In 1987 I revisited Shanghai after 39 years and saw the Kun Opera performance The Palace of Eternal Life. I was deeply moved and I thought to myself this elegant art must go on even though I didn’t know how to revive it at the time.

Photography by Doug BrucePhotography by Doug Bruce

Your production, The Peony Pavilion, charmed audiences around the world. Taipei Times said “it is nothing less than an event signalling the revival of China’s most ancient and most sublime performing art form”.
The Peony Pavilion succeeded in revitalising Kun Opera. It made the art form cool – youths in China now go to performances on a regular basis. It is a romantic love story and for youths it always works like a charm. Youths are drawn to beauty and Kun Opera is inherently beautiful. I am faithful to the essential elements of Kun Opera and don’t want to change them. It was performed and well-received in the US, the UK, etc.

I hope the Western audience can get to know our most ancient operatic form through this production. Schools in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan can do better in educating students about Chinese Opera. Students know who Mozart is, who Puccini is but don’t know about Chinese Opera playwrights. This inflicts serious damage on our cultural identity. I now teach a Kun Opera course in Peking University and hope other universities in the Mainland will follow suit.

Despite being labelled “a dying art”, Chinese Opera is still extremely prevalent. As well as numerous performances and tours around the world, the China Central Television Network dedicates an entire channel to the craft and Hong Kong boasted 1600 Cantonese Opera performances in the last year. The art form is however undergoing an image crisis similar to that which Western opera has faced in recent times and experiences the same challenge of luring younger audiences.

The last few years have seen an explosion of Western classical music in China, and as Chinese culture becomes more prevalent around the world, perhaps the West will embrace Chinese opera with similar alacrity. The author of The Peony Pavilion Tang Xianzu once wrote “From passion, a dream was born, and that dream has turned into a play.” If both practitioners and audience remain passionate, Chinese Opera in its various forms cannot fail to succeed; the loss of such beauty would be a tragedy indeed.

by Victoria Ip

All photography by Doug Bruce

From the Glass Archive – Issue two – Rapture