Cantonese opera returns to Hong Kong
Cantonese opera is defined by a combination of soaring arias, melodramatic plotlines and martial arts. (Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department)
A rundown cinema in Kowloon has just been renovated into the newly-opened Yau Ma Tei Theatre, a centre for the traditional Hong Kong art form of Cantonese opera, showing an almost-daily series of performances featuring young opera artists.
The refurbished venue, which combines eastern and western architectural elements including an Art Deco facade and a Chinese-style roof, lies amid low-rise tenement buildings, vibrant markets and local shops. Built in 1930, it was the city's only pre-World War II theatre in an urban area and enjoyed an active heyday of screenings, performances and events. It was closed in 1998 due to low usage, but the current project to restore the theatre and devote it to Cantonese opera was initiated in 2009 by the Hong Kong government in collaboration with local arts groups that are devoted to the traditional technique, such as the Chinese Artists’ Association.
Like other Chinese opera styles, Cantonese opera is defined by a combination of soaring arias, melodramatic plotlines, martial arts and performers wearing dramatic makeup, elaborate costumes and headdresses. Narratives often centre on historical epics featuring dynastic royalty, concubines, deities and supernatural creatures. But Cantonese opera also remains distinct from Mandarin opera, which developed in parts of mainland China and uses different melodies due to different tones and inflections of the language.
Other efforts to revive the art form are taking shape. A two-month-long Chinese opera festival, which takes place every summer, just wrapped up, featuring more than a dozen performing arts groups from across China, including Cantonese performers.
As for where to see performances year round, besides the new Yau Ma Tei Theatre? Try the 40-year-old Sunbeam Theatre which narrowly escaped closure earlier this year thanks to philanthropist of Li Kiu-ming, a feng shui master and theatrical troupe owner. The Ko Shan Theatre is also playing host to an increasing number of Cantonese opera performances, with an additional annex, made up of a 600-seat theatre and other facilities exclusively devoted to the genre slated to open next year.
A separate project set to be completed in 2015, the West Kowloon Cultural District's Xiqu Centre, will be a major hub for Chinese opera, focusing on the preservation and development of the art form in Hong Kong. In the meantime, the authority behind the cultural district is hosting Cantonese opera performances and film screenings on the site until construction begins.
For novices there are several options to learn about Cantonese opera. The city's Heritage Museum has a hall devoted to artefacts related to the art and its history, including a reconstructed theatre, librettos and multimedia programs. The museum even runs a weekly Cantonese opera appreciation class in English on Saturday afternoons, which features a performance by a local troupe.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel