You may have heard of Chinese Opera but have you actually sat down to watch a Chinese Opera performance before? It was actually a thing of the past for the older generations (in the 1950s and 60s) to watch Chinese Street Opera during the Hungry Ghost festival.
A week ago, I had this golden opportunity to watch Chinese Opera show in the middle of Chinatown district – at the exact spot where the Chinese Opera theater was once located.
I may not have appreciate the arts behind this form of theatrical performance back then as a kid but now, I certainly do. With a greater limelight on our local arts and heritage, I could not help but be drawn to this cultural performing art which has over a thousand years of history. Because of this opera festival which was held a week ago, I was able to watch a Chinese Opera show live!
Chinatown Opera Festival 2019
The Chinatown Opera Festival 2019 was organised by Chinatown Singapore and Chinatown Business Association and supported by Singapore Tourism Board. This festival aims to showcase Singapore’s rich Chinese heritage and culture through opera shows and fringe activities that help encapsulate the nostalgic days back in the 1950s and 60s.
I believe this event has well-received by the public as the tickets to the Chinese Opera Night performances were all sold out. To cater to a wider audience, they have provided both English and Chinese subtitles too.
Most of the audiences were probably from the Merdeka or Pioneer generation but I still do see some young people in the crowd. And to reach out to the younger audiences, they have infused some modern pop song elements into the opera show.
Accompanying the Chinese Opera performances are a series of fringe activities for the public to enjoy. There were photo booths, colouring station, games stalls and opera props on display.
You can even get your hands on some Chinese calligraphy. Some of the interested tourists picked up the calligraphy brushes and tried to recreate those basic Chinese calligraphy strokes.
Chinese Opera Puppet Show
Chinese Opera Performance
The Chinese opera performance was held at the main stage area which was housed under this huge white event tent. To me, the most intriguing part of the whole Chinese Opera show experience is probably sneaking into the backstage area to observe the preparation process. Guess what? I had the opportunity to go backstage and to find out what happen behind the scene.
That evening, the organizers had invited an international Chinese Opera troupe from Guangzhou China to perform Cantonese Opera. According to their troupe master, the Chinese opera singers were trained in opera singing from a very young age. In fact, most of these actors were experienced enough to do up the stage makeup on themselves . There’s no need for a make-up artist.
The over-the-top thick makeup, elaborate costumes and dramatic falsetto singing are symbolic of Chinese Operas.
A Chinese Opera Singer’s Makeup Palette
They often used vibrant hues of pink to highlight their facial features and black paint to make their eyes look more define.
As for their costumes, the performers have to put on elaborate costumes and head gears to complete their outfits. If you have been to Chinese designer, Guo Pei’s couture exhibition at Asian Civilisation Museum, you will know where she get her inspiration from.
They have cleverly integrated technology to the stage set-up. To create a more realistic backdrop for the performance, they reply on this large digital screen to display the backdrop.
Chinese Opera with English and Chinese subtitles
I’m glad that there were English subtitles otherwise there is no way I could understand what was happening on stage. However, I do feel that some of the lines they sang in Cantonese were not fully expressed through the English language. That’s because some of the English translation do not make much sense. Or perhaps, there aren’t many words in the English dictionary which could convey the deeper lyrical meanings.
What some characteristics of Chinese Opera?
Simple props with exaggerated actions
To some of us, you may find that Chinese opera is a little odd with the ghastly appearance of the performers and exaggerated movements. In the past, there were not many props used so the actors have to reply on exaggerated facial expressions to bring out the emotions.
They connect with the audiences with their intense expressions and body language.
There are usually 6 to 8 segments in an opera show
I managed to watch 3 segments of the performances in the first half. I realized that the recurring theme in most of the performances were on hardships and miseries. The songs they sung sounded rather mellow too. However, there were some scenes which involves acrobatics that help liven up the sad and moody atmosphere.
Why performers wear long white sleeves?
The long white sleeves are a unique feature of their costumes. They are called ‘water sleeves’ because they look like waves when fluttered in air. These sleeves also enables to the actors to express their emotions. For instance, if you are angry, you will be able to notice the vigorous fluttering of the sleeves.
Where there’s entertainment, there’s food.
In Singapore, Chinese street opera performances were usually accompanied by makeshift street food stalls. To recreate the Opera show experience, they had invited vendors to set up food stalls selling sentimental street food items like Bird’s nest drinks.
There were these two ‘Kacang Putih’ boys who also walked along the rows of occupied seat, selling Kacang Putih.
Overall, it was an enlivening experience for me to watch a Chinese Opera show live. It has definitely inspired me to learn more about this performing art.
Let’s hope this Chinese cultural heritage in Singapore will continue to live on for the many years to come! I would definitely want my children to be able to witness this aspect of Chinese arts.
Special thanks to Chinatown Business Association and Singapore Tourism Board for this opportunity.