A lot of people think Cantonese opera is the entertainment of generations past. This notion doesn’t sit well with Kristy To, who has been passionate about the traditional art form since childhood. She recounts arguing against Cantonese opera’s reputation as old-fashioned during a school visit. ‘How can you consider something old-fashioned if you’ve never experienced it? People make assumptions about things before experiencing them,’ she says. ‘We do not force students to like Cantonese opera; we are just telling them what this art form is all about, demystifying it.’
To pursue a career in Cantonese opera, of course, takes a lot more work. The Hong Kong Young Talent Opera Troupe and Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong organise regular classes, while the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts offers a diploma course in Cantonese opera.
‘One must master all of the skills,’ says Edgar Ng. ‘These include singing, reciting, acting and choreography – the four pillars of Cantonese opera. There are also spear fights and many other techniques to pick up. After the apprenticeship, one becomes a professional performer under the auspices of one’s teacher, as opposed to the common practice of auditions in Western theatre – our community is too small for that.’ There are some 30 young Cantonese opera performers in Hong Kong.
There is a friendly vibe among our interviewees; colleagues in such a small community are naturally close. ‘We are on good terms with the older generation too because we need their guidance,’ says Katie Chan, who has learned Cantonese opera since she was four years old. ‘With peers, even if there are grudges, we never hesitate to help each other – the show must go on anyway. We always put Cantonese opera first.’
The shows are shorter now to accommodate younger audiences and performers – even old arts must evolve to stay relevant. But there are encouraging signs, with a new production staged about every two months. ‘We will go on devoting ourselves to promoting Cantonese opera,’ says Chan. ‘After all, its future is in our hands.’