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The Cantonese Opera Tradition

Aditya Valvi, Author

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Characteristics of Cantonese Opera

Stripped of an ability to understand the language and the stories, these basics on Cantonese opera can provide an enormous amount of information about the culture and tradition that accompanies this art form.

The themes and stories performed in these plays are based on Chinese history, famous Chinese myths and legends, interspersed with regional events, folklore and politics. With a long history of over five hundred recorded years, Cantonese opera has transformed itself from an activity accompanied by gambling and prostitution to one that was placed in the highest regards by the Ming and Qing Dynasty to one that, in more recent times, engendered political upheaval and following the path of righteousness. The main themes touched upon in these plays are loyalty, love, patriotism, faithfulness and the vanquishing of evil. As the Gaungdong province, once called Canton Province, is vast and populated with various dialects, Cantonese opera chose the language of Guangzhou, or Canton, as their official theatrical language. However, troupes from different parts of Guangdong weave their local culture and traits into the narrative.

An important aspect to remember is that the stories performed are those that are very well known to the populace. Thus making it easy for any member of population to watch and understand a performance, and by the same reasoning, allow a troupe from any part of Guangdong to find an audience capable of understanding them. Since the stories are known, great importance is placed on the symbolism and stylization of the performance, thus giving reason to the elaborate make up and costumes. The audience is expected to imagine the scene being performed as a small part of the whole. That is to say they are expected to conjure their own mental world around the scene based on the symbolism of the performance. For example a mighty battle may be depicted by only three soldiers; a lantern festival may be depicted by one lantern; a silk ribbon writhing on the floor can be interpreted as a river; a horse can be imagined when the performer holds a whip. The movements of the performers are also symbolic of real world actions and thus attention must be provided to their 'virtual' movements. For people savvy to the stories, however, this is easy to understand.

There are two distinct styles of Cantonese Opera - Mou and Man. The Mou style focuses on war themes and military affairs. The main characters are usually warriors, generals and foot soldiers. This style uses robust martial art movements as part of the performance and attention is given to the movement of the body. The Mou style of performance is one of the influences of the boom of Eastern and Western martial arts movies in the mid and late twentieth century. The Man style is designed to be a lot more elegant and refined. The principal characters, in this instance, are scholars and gentlefolk, which exemplify the life of the gentry. This style is known for its attention to facial features and hand gestures to express gentler emotions like timidness, shyness and affection. They also use a garment called "water sleeves", large sleeves which hang down and allow the performer to express more movement with his hands.
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