Cantonese Opera is one of the major categories in Chinese opera based in southern China and overseas ethnic Chinese communities. Cantonese Opera is a formalized operatic form that emphasizes gymnastic and martial arts skills. This form of Chinese Opera predominates in Guangdong (formerly called Canton), Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, and in Chinese-influenced areas in western countries.
Cantonese Opera was first performed during the reign of the Ming Dynasty Jiajing Emperor Originally based on the older forms of Chinese Opera, Cantonese Opera began to add local folk melodies, Cantonese instrumentation, and eventually even Western popular tunes. In addition to traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa, erhu, and percussion, modern Cantonese Opera productions may include such Western instruments as the violin, cello, or even saxophone.
The melodies of Cantonese Opera are entirely secondary to the lyrics. Two different types of plays make up the Cantonese Opera repertoire: Mo, meaning “martial arts,” and Mun, or “intellectual.”
Mo performances are fast-paced, involving stories of warfare, bravery and betrayal. The actors often carry weapons as props, and the elaborate costumes may be as heavy as actual armor.
Mun, on the other hand, tends to be a slower, more polite art form. The actors use their vocal tones, facial expressions, and long flowing “water sleeves” to express complex emotions. Most of the Mun stories are romances, morality tales, ghost stories, or famous Chinese classic tales or myths.
One notable feature of Cantonese Opera is the makeup. It is among the most elaborate makeup systems in all of Chinese Opera, with different shades of color and shapes (particularly on the forehead) indicating the mental state, trustworthiness, and physical health of the characters. For example, sickly characters have a thin red line drawn between the eyebrows, while comic or clownish characters have a large white spot over the bridge of the nose.
Some Cantonese Operas also involve actors in “open face” makeup, which is so intricate and complicated that it resembles a painted mask more than a living face. Today, Hong Kong is at the center of efforts to keep Cantonese Opera alive and thriving. The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts offers two-year degrees in Cantonese Opera performance, and the Arts Development Council sponsors opera classes for the city’s children.
Through such concerted effort, this unique and intricate form of Chinese Opera may continue to find an audience for decades to come.