How would you look if you were a Chinese opera singer? I found out recently when I attended a Cantonese Opera workshop at the Heritage Museum of Hong Kong I found out there are 350 kinds of Chinese opera- each based on a different Chinese dialect. Cantonese opera is the genre most common in Hong Kong. The young woman who was our opera workshop instructor had been studying opera for five years. She told us she was only a beginner. It takes more than twenty years to become a really good performer. This explains why many ‘opera stars’ are over the age of fifty. Our guide taught us how to distinguish between male and female, and comic and tragic opera characters by their dress, make-up, voices and body movements.
After she had introduced us to the plot line of an opera we tip toed into a theatre where an opera was in progress and watched it for about twenty minutes. The female character sang in a falsetto voice all the time. The singers didn’t always seem to know where the tune of their song was leading them and the audience was talking throughout the performance. Later our guide told us there are no written or designated notes in Chinese opera scripts. Actors are provided with only a set of lyrics. The singers make up the tune as they go along. The tradition of female characters using a falsetto voice is an ancient tradition stemming from a time when only male performers were allowed on the stage. They used a falsetto voice to sound feminine. A Chinese opera is apparently performed as a tribute to the gods. Since the deities are the intended audience, the human audience can talk and even eat or play games like mahjong or chess while the opera is going on without insulting the performers.
The second part of our tour took us through a museum exhibit where we saw opera costumes. They are extremely ornate and very expensive to create. Our guide explained the thick face paint worn by characters. Evil villains wear mostly white make-up, while good heroes have predominantly red faces. The museum had a computer program set up that allowed you to put on the make-up and costume of a classic opera character. You chose a character, positioned your face on the computer screen and then waited for your face to appear in the costume and make-up of that character. I chose a Warrior Woman, and took a photo of myself in my opera persona.
I found out several things about Chinese opera that would make me think twice about becoming an opera singer. Cantonese operas are between four and five hours long. Actors must memorize thousands of lines. Opera costumes weigh many kilos and female actresses wear narrow toed, high-heeled shoes. Most performances are held outside in the humid heat. Although it was fun to see how I would look as a Chinese opera singer, I don’t think I’d like to be one.