On Cantonese opera


One of the reasons I was swanning about Kuala Lumpur last week was to attend a Cantonese opera. (Which is like Beijing style, except in Cantonese.) Unlike the usual show one might catch in KL or Singapore – a brief string of sketches from different shows, usually without benefit of costumes or sets, this one was a complete opera with the glittering works. On the (single) night it played we sat down at 7pm … and curtain call took place at 11:30.

Allowing for intermissions, speeches, acknowledgements et al, the musical portion went for 3.5 hours. More remarkable still, it was an amateur production with proceeds going to charity. It took the Jade Leaves Welfare and Cultural Association a year to rehearse for and organise. I know this because my mother is the one on the right in the picture above. She told me they had started putting on the very elaborate make up from 12 noon. And no eating until the show was over.

Putting a play on is fraught and I can see why the ladies of Jade Leaves were in high tension and nerve-wracked. A lot of things had to come together on the night and nearly didn’t. The Concubine pictured above, left, was singing through a temperature of 101º. Being an amateur production, there was no understudy: immediately she came off stage they stripped her and bundled her into bed. Another concubine had been in a car crash the week before. One other had become widowed only 10 days before showtime – someone had to cram a whole year’s practice into ten days to take her place. And so on.

(Flicking through the program I count 23 people in costume on stage, 8 musicians and who knows how many stage hands. Then, there was the business of finding the venue – crucially, the hire fee was donated; organising the logistics for everything to coincide for the night – handlers, door people (all volunteers), pre-show food and drinks for the sell-out house (the excellent show venue was not convenient to shops), preparing the full-colour program and having it printed, and … selling the 500 seats at RM200 each. Tickets bought by people with real money for one specific night in the year means that nothing must go wrong – the show must go on.

It reminds me of that Sondheim lyric: Art isn’t easy, even when you’re hot. Advancing art is easy, financing it is not. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head … Bit by bit, putting it together. Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art.)


Regrets of the Tong King:
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.

Mother got to play the part of the Emperor in the Regrets of the Tong Kingdom; but she didn’t have to do the whole 3.5 hours as the role was shared with two other women (! – as the Jade Leaves Association comprises all women; my mother is Chairwoman) in the four scenes of the story. She did get to come on first in Scene One, which was nice.

The legendary story of the Emperor and his femme fatale concubine is told by Po Chu-i in his famous poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” Cutting a very long (see here) history short: The Emperor Ming (later known as Xuanzong) is exemplary and his reign from 712 to 756 BC brings the Tang Dynasty (or Tong, in Cantonese) to a peak of power and glamour. But then … he falls for his son’s wife, who eventually becomes the Concubine Yong Kwai Fei.

The Emperor’s lotus-eating and pleasure-seeking leads to the An Shi rebellion, which is led – tada! – by the general An Lu-Shan, the Turkic godson of … Concubine Yong Kwai Fei. (The Prime Minister at this time was also the cousin of the Concubine.) The Emperor and his retinue flee the court. But his frontline general sends a message that the troops refuse* to fight for the rebellion unless the Emperor deposes the Concubine and the PM, whom they blame for all the troubles. (*This was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven which says that if the King becomes corrupt and neglects the welfare of his people, Heaven will withdraw its mandate for his rule.)

In the opera the Concubine realises that the Emperor cannot bear to part with her and thus will the Kingdom be lost. She persuades the Emepror to order her to sacrifice her life. She commits suicide. Curtain.



Oh and I should add that it went over like a very big wave. People were ringing up for days after enquiring if it might be staged again next year. My mother says, if only it were so straight forward, or funds so easy to raise. Opera lovers, please send your donations here.


Here are a couple of clips of the show (pardon my handheld shakes). Below is a Westernised version of Chinese opera for comparison.

This is a bit of mother singing, praising the Concubine and about to place a pin in her coiffure.

Here are a few seconds of one of my favourite aspects, the superb percussion group, who kept up a series of variegated drums, clap sticks and cymbals for the whole show, including this extraordinary kind of fever-thunder.


And this is what a Westernised version of Chinese opera might look like: a version of Farewell My Concubine, which is a similar story (as in the movie of the title) but not to be mistaken for our Yong Kwai Fei and her fated Emperor. This seems to me not a translation of the artform, but a wholus-bolus transference into Western opera – in this case, I much prefer the Oriental to the Occidental.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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