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The Cantonese Opera Tradition

Aditya Valvi, Author

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Role Types and their Importance

An important feature of Cantonese opera is the concept and use of role types: archetypes for all the characters in the performance to be based on. Each has has its own style of speaking, singing, gesture, movement, costume and make-up. This is so that the audience can recognize instantly the gender, profession, age, status and personality of the character. Actors are usually well-versed with all role types and even perform characters of another gender.

During the Experimental Stage of Cantonese opera the ten traditional role types were reduced to six major roles called the "Six Pillars". The old method required ten actors who specialized in each role; the new method allowed an actor to learn to perform multiple roles. Discounting the overlap of roles, however, we are left with four distinct major roles:

The Male Role, Sang

The Sang character type represent the male roles in the play. There are usually two Sang roles - the principal and the supporting. The principal role is usually one of great respect, usually of royalty, military or a gentleman while the supporting role us usually a scholar or an old man, though different troupes stylize the characters the way they require. The Sang role type are identified by their low pitch voices, the high-heeled shoes, long strides and relatively sparse make up. Warrior Sang can be identified by the flags they wear on their shoulders.

The Female Role"Daan"

The Daan represent the female characters in the play. Just like the Sang, they are categorized into two roles - principal and supporting. Again, they have similar character types like the gentlewoman, old lady, servant and warrior among others. Daan characters wear distinctive and elaborate hair attire, sometimes adorned with metal and glass, and have seven hair pieces decorating their forehead. Other ways to identify Daan roles are the falsetto voice, and the short strides that resemble tiptoeing. Warrior roles wear flags similar to the Sang.

The Comic Role "Cao"

The Cao role is generally included for comic relief, usually after a scene of heated interaction or dramatic importance. This usually occurs three quarters into the play. Cao characters are meant to humourusly disruptive and are easily identified for being so - their faces are not painted conventionally - usually with a large square or circle painted right in the centre of the face, and exaggerated, staggered movement.

The Extreme Role "Jing"

The Jing represents those characters that are driven by the force of a single emotion or ideology taken to the extreme. They will resolutely adhere to their own way of thinking regardless of good or evil. Jing roles use the colour of their faces to reveal their characeter to the audience. Faces painted red depict a character of unwavering loyalty, usually a historic figure of importance, a general or a king. Faces painted black stand for justice and are played by similarly heroic roles like kings and generals. White faces are represent a character of infinite evil, and wrinkles are added to the face to provide a sinister, demonic look. Jing characters usually appear in the "Mou" form of Cantonese opera.
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