Hong Kong Cantonese Opera
Cantonese Opera one of four types of Chinese Opera has its roots in the Canton region now know as Guangzhou also referred to as the Pearl River Delta. Cantonese opera is an art form that involves music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting. Cantonese operas tell stories about Chinese history, traditions, culture, as well as philosophies.
Two Types of Plays – Mun & Mo
Mo translates to martial arts with a focus on generals and warriors. Mo plays are exciting and action-packed and intricately choreographed, often using weapons. The costumes for Mo plays are very complicated as they state different positions. They are also very demanding on actors as they are heavy and cumbersome.
In Hong Kong one is more likely to see a Mun opera as they are intellectual, polite, cultured. These plays characters are often either scholars, royalty etc. Mun plays tend to be dramatic and the movements are soft and slow that are more appealing to an older audience. Instead of using weapons, performers show of their abilities in water sleeves work that give a sense of water flowing. This type of play focuses more on facial expression, tone of voice, and meaning behind the movements so the artist needs to build skills over years. Mun operas might be of either romantic or comical in nature.
While actors are singing and moving around on stage, they also have to act! Cantonese opera acting is not the same as acting in movies or on TV. Many emotions have certain facial expressions and body gestures that go along with it. Performers also have to be careful not to ruin their makeup or hair with histrionic expressions.
Hong Kong Cantonese Opera makeup is very much an art form and an important part of the show. It’s both unique and difficult to master. The audience reads the makeup to understand more about the characters. The process for applying is nine steps that can be seen below thanks to feature BBC ran in 2015 about Cantonese Opera.
Understanding the make-up.
- Large circular shape in center of the face is a comical role.
- Thin red line in-between the eyebrows pointing upward means they are ill.
- General with arrow shape starting between eyebrows and fading into forehead is an aggressive character.
- Actors are look nothing like their characters. The outfits are not onyl beautiful but very much a challenge to learn. The actor get a literal facelift:by useing tape to pull back the skin from their faces, enlarging their eyes and smoothing out wrinkles.
- Actors use symbolic movements to convey meaning. Someone travelling long distances would take long, swift steps.
- Traditionally all actors were male (started changing in 1930’s), so female characters are portrayed with heavy use of a nasal falsetto. This is difficult to do well: The singer must force his or her voice through the nose while maintaining a smooth and sonorous texture.
- Sideburns, wigs and beards are all made with real hair. This allows them to be straightened with a clothes iron. In the past people would grow their hair for years to sell with the best kept hair getting the most money. Actors for female roles glue sideburns to their faces to slim down the shape. Today it’s more typical that a woman is playing a male role.
- A young, unmarried woman will have her hair down (in a ponytail), with part of it swept up to one side, and jewelry and flowers (more if she is wealthy).
- A married woman has two hairstyles: one is called dai tow (literally, big head), where the woman has two very long strands in the front, and the rest bound up and covered with jewels. The other style is similar to an unmarried woman’s, except the ponytail in the back is tied up at the nape of the neck.
- Fairies or royalty usually have their hair left down (in a ponytail), with a very high crown or tiara set in the middle
- The costumes are not only a work of art and visually stunning but they are an important part of the opera as they all have different meanings. Mainly blue character’s costume indicates they are cruel or arrogant.
- Movement is also very particular and there are importance and reasons for such moves. This includes such movements as flinging of ones hair (ponytail) this symbolizes frustration or grief, such as when a loved one dies in a dramatic way
Chinese Opera is accompanied by musicians who one often might think is playing their own tune. Well there is some truth to that. The lyrics are the important part of the performance and the music is only a minor component so composition is limited. There is no conductor and the musicians have much more freedom than the actors themselves. The more traditional the instrument the more independence and creativity is allowed. The percussion section is always given free reign to do as they please. The er wu a traditional Chinese instruments leads the orchestra while the percussion is responsible for the overall rhythm and pace of the music. The band size depends more on budget than on necessity. Today the instruments are a mix of both traditional Chinese instruments and Western ones. This can be based on available skills as well as preferred sounds.