Friday, June 29, 2007

(T) Cantonese Opera - June 26, 2007

Pix: The Star

EVERYONE, young and old, should take the opportunity to catch a rare glimpse of Cantonese opera during the Festival of Cantonese Opera, themed The Power and Passion, held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).

The festival, organised by the Rotary Club of Gombak, brings the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe (GCOAFT), the world’s best-loved Cantonese opera troupe, to our shores. The 60-strong troupe, led by renowned lead principal Ding Fan, comprises performers, musicians, and acrobats.

The six-day festival, from June 26 to July 1, features several opera favourites, including Swapping the Prince with a Civet (June 26 and 29), The Emperor Tang and Yang GuiFeiA Night of Excerpts (June 27, 30 and July 1) featuring excerpts from stories such as Mui GuiYing, Journey to the West, Zhong Kui, and the King of Ghost. (June 28 and July 1), and

It’s not too difficult to fall in love with Cantonese opera once you get past the high-pitched voices, exaggerated mannerisms and make-up. It’s all these and more that make the genre so unique. Accompanied by live Chinese orchestra, the performance is filled with beautiful, traditional music, accentuating scenes and punctuating emotions.

Watching Swapping the Prince with a Civet on the opening night, I was transported back in time to the world of palace politics during the Song Dynasty.

The moral of the story is still relevant today. To sum it up, Dilbert (a popular management cartoon)-style, management is blind, evil triumphs, the good gets exiled and those who are loyal get framed and die for nothing.

Having said all that, the stars are actually the loyal and good servants (Chen Lin, played by Ding Fan and Kou Zhu, played by Jiang Wenduan), without which the dynasty will not survive and prosper.

The Emperor Zhao Heng, already in his 50s, has no heir. When the emperor learns that both Concubine Li and Concubine Liu are pregnant, he decrees that whoever gives birth to a son first will be crowned empress.

When Li (Ye Bei) gives birth to a son, Liu (Chen Jinyun) plots with the palace guard, Guo Huai (Shi Jian), to swap Li’s prince with a civet, and accuses her of conceiving an imp. Li is sent to live in the Exiled Residence. Meanwhile, Liu orders her maid, Kou Zhu, to throw a meal basket into the Golden River.

The maid, not realising that the prince is in the basket, is about to throw it into the river when she hears the baby cry. Superintendent Chen Li comes to investigate. When they realise that the baby is the Crown Prince, they hide the baby from Liu.

The most exciting part of the show is when Chen attempts to smuggle the baby into Nanjing Palace for protection. He hides the baby in a fruit basket, on the pretext of bringing Zhao Defang (Yang Lihao), the 8th King of Nanjing, a birthday gift of fresh peaches.

Guo and Liu stop Chen when he is making his way to the palace. The tension mounts as Liu inspects layer after layer of the three-tiered fruit basket.

Just as Chen is about to open the third layer, which has the baby in it, Kou comes along and distracts Liu, thus preventing him from discovering the baby. Chen succeeds in taking the prince to safety. Zhao, upon hearing of Liu’s evil plans, agrees to bring up the prince as his own son.

Meanwhile, Liu gives birth to a son and is crowned empress. However, seven years later, her son dies and the emperor starts to look for a new heir. The emperor chooses Zhao Zhen (Huang Zheng, the youngest performer), not knowing that he is Li’s son. When Liu realises that something is amiss, Kou and a few others sacrifice themselves to protect the Crown Prince and his mother, Li.

The story ends amidst the crumbling, burning Exiled Residence, and we are expected to watch out for the next episode, as if chasing a TVB Cantonese serial. It's equally additive, I would say. But while television is just entertainment, Cantonese opera is a must-watch work of art.

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