Chan hei-yu never expected her career would become so intertwined with her interest in Cantonese opera before she had even graduated from university.
Now a resident actress at Tea House Theatre in Xiqu Centre, Chan was drawn as a seven-year-old to opera because of the elaborate costumes and headgear performers donned at outdoor performances in Cheung Chau, which she watched with her grandparents.
Unlike most professional actors, the 26-year-old’s journey into Cantonese opera did not begin with a master-apprentice relationship. Instead, it began with interest classes.
“Entering the industry requires you to first determine whether Cantonese opera is your lifelong career and then find a master who will guide you, which is a match made by chance,” said Chan. “Most hobbyists start with interest classes.”
Chan decided to join the Tea House theater, feeling it offered a unique performance space to arouse people’s interest.
The Tea House Theatre Experience, the Xiqu Centre’s permanent program presented by the Tea House Rising Stars Troupe, of which Chan is a member, is designed to introduce audiences to traditional Chinese theater.
Going on stage at least three times a week, the first half of the show starts with nanyin, a form of ballad singing popular during the early 20th century that usually depicts folktales or short stories appealing to popular tastes. The nanyin presented in the performance is composed by Law Ka-ying, a renowned opera singer and actor who also serves as the theater’s artistic curator and director.
The program goes on to introduce a classical selection of wind and percussion music.
“The theater is quite small – it can only contain 200 audience members at most, and Cantonese opera newcomers may think the music noisy because of the drums and gongs,” said Chan.
“So the space was designed by a professional sound design team to create better acoustics, which is a rare thing for a traditional Cantonese opera theater to do.”
The performance includes two Cantonese opera excerpts, with one usually focusing on martial arts and the other on romance. The second half of the show also presents Cantonese music and opera songs from famous dramas, with actors performing in casual dress in order to narrow the distance with audiences.
Traditional theaters generally perform whole operas that last two to four hours, which can be overwhelming for newcomers, but the all-in-one experience runs for only 90 minutes, which the audience can enjoy while having tea and dim sum.
The experience also includes narration by an expert moderator to help audiences follow the story, characters, movements, as well as learning the history of popular songs through narration offered via Chinese and English subtitles.
“No matter the design of the performance content or the environment, our various configurations are moving toward the younger generation,” said Chan.
As a graduate of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong in 2016, Chan also works as a radio anchor hosting Chinese opera-related programs on RTHK Radio 5.
But she sees the two roles as distinct from each other. “RTHK’s audience is predominantly elderly people, and the job is more passive because there is only me talking and playing opera, so I get no feedback.”
But on stage, she can see her audience engaging with her performances.
In Chan’s eyes, both RTHK and Tea House Theatre strive to pass on this powerful tradition, with the theater creating new platforms for young actors and working to attract new audiences.
This is reflected by the Xiqu Centre’s mentorship of the Tea House Rising Stars Troupe, which places young artists under the mentorship of Law and rehearsal curator Cheng Wing-mui – another renowned Cantonese opera artist.
In addition to the Tea House Theatre Experience, the Xiqu Centre hosts regular guided tours, talks, and workshops to introduce people of all ages to a variety of performance-related history, crafts, and techniques.
The center has gone above and beyond in trying to cultivate interest in Cantonese opera, Chan said, adding that she hopes to host more events like meetings with artists to allow for greater interaction with audiences.
“Questions raised by the audience might be simple, like why you started your career,” said Chan. “But once they know the artists more, they will become more curious about Cantonese opera.”
(This article was published at The Standard on January 14, 2020: Education: Role of honor )