Cantonese Opera is a traditional Chinese art form that involves music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting. Cantonese Opera plays tell stories about Chinese history, traditions, culture, and philosophies.
Cantonese Opera music consists of innumerable melodies and tunes. Unlike European opera where the composer of the music is praised, in Cantonese opera the music isn’t the most important part - the lyrics are. In Cantonese opera the writers put words into this pool of melodies and tunes. One song may contain many melodies, and it is up to the singer to add his or her own personal variation and style to the melody when they sing it. The singing must be combined with music, of course. Traditional Chinese instruments such as the er wu (yee wu), butterfly harp, pay-paa, flute, and percussion, to say the least, make up the Cantonese Opera orchestra. The percussion alone consists of many different drums and cymbals. The percussion is responsible for the overall rhythm and pace of the music, while the er wu leads the orchestra. Now, Cantonese opera has incorporated many western instruments such as the cello, saxophone, and even the violin which is often used in place of the er wu.
Types of Plays
There are two types of Cantonese Opera plays. One is called "Mun," and the other is called, "Mo."
Mo means martial arts. Characters in Mo plays are usually generals or warriors. Mo plays are action-packed and intricately choreographed, often using weapons. The costumes for Mo plays are very complicated (and heavy).
Mun means intellectual, polite, cultured. These are the plays whose characters are either scholars, royalty. Mun plays tend to be dramatic and the movements are soft and slow. Instead of using weapons, performers show of their abilities in water sleeves work (see terms below). This type of play focuses more on facial expression, tone of voice, and meaning behind the movements.
While actors are singing and moving around on stage, they also have to act! Cantonese opera acting is not the same as acting in movies or on TV. Many emotions have certain facial expressions and body gestures that go along with it. Performers also have to be careful not to ruin their makeup or hair with histrionic expressions.
Cantonese Opera makeup is very unique and difficult to master. For the most common type of makeup, the white and red face, the process is as follows. First, a white or off-white base foundation is applied to the entire face, including the neck and ears. Then, red rouge is spread across the eye area, blending down to the cheeks and stopping just at the bridge of the nose. Traditionally, the eyes and eyebrows are drawn following the natural shape. Nowadays, the eyebrows must be drawn at a sharp, upward angle, and the eyes are also drawn slanting upwards, to make them appear long. The actor gives the eyes and eyebrows a lift using a flat black ribbon and pulling the skin tightly upward and tying it tightly behind the head. Some actors, now, prefer to use cosmetic tape to pull their eyes into a slant, to lessen the discomfort, and it does make eyelining easier. Lipstick is bright red. The makeup helps enhance the actor’s facial features and many times tells the audience a lot about the characters personality. For instance, if an actor plays a comical role, he will usually paint a large white circular shape in the center of his face. This tells the audience that he is a comical character. If the character in an opera is ill, the actor playing that role paints a thin red line in between the eyebrows upward, symbolizing sickness. For male generals or male characters with a lot of aggression, the actor paints a “ying hong jee” in between his eyebrows. This is an arrow shape that is painted and blended starting from between the eyebrows and fading into the forehead. This symbolizes a lot of frustration in the character.
Picture source: Chinese Opera
There is also another type of face painting which is always associated with Chinese opera. This type is called “hoy meen” which literally translates to open face. The characters that wear this type of makeup are tall, broad male characters, such as the three sworn brothers, in the famous story the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu, Jueng Fey, and Lao Bey. This type of makeup is truly an art of its own. The actor applies many different colors of oil-base and water-base makeup to create different faces of characters. Each open face character in opera has their own different makeup. These consist of many symbols, intricate details, and blending. The colors used are just as important as the designs because each color also symbolizes something different.