Classic dresses up in contemporary garb

Education | Bonnie Chen 8 Jul 2019

Despite being a tragedy, the "Dream of the Red Chamber" Cantonese opera was selected to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Open University of Hong Kong and the Chinese view of love, affection, and values were conveyed through operatic aesthetics.

The performance was staged at the Grand Theatre of the Xiqu Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

As one of the four Chinese literature classics, the novel by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century, could resonate with the audience. Extracts were presented through Chinese dance and Cantonese opera.

The tragedy between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu is more than Romeo and Juliet's love. As what renowned writers Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung and Liu Zaifu said in a prelude dialogue, "A glimpse at the Red Chamber", it is also about filial piety, friendship, social class, traditional values, pre-destiny, fate, and emotional debt.

Artistic director Fredric Mao Chun-fai said the "Dream of the Red Chamber" has always been a popular work adopted by Chinese operas in different regions. Even the Peking opera virtuoso Mei Lanfang, known for performing various female roles, had played Lin Daiyu several times. However, the "Dream of the Red Chamber" was adopted better in South China in the Yue opera, popular in the Zhejiang province and Cantonese Opera. While the Guangdong province was affected by the Cultural Revolution, the tradition of Cantonese Opera is better preserved in Hong Kong, said Mao.

Mao quoted Yue Opera star Xu Yulan that to portray the role of Jia Baoyu well, his concept of love has to be presented in an obscure way.

The OUHK version was beyond a Cantonese opera.

The first scene, "Daiyu joins the Jia family", was presented by graduates of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts under the direction of choreographer Yang Yuntao, who is Hong Kong Dance Company's artistic director.

The graceful yet airy setting and dance in the scene denoted the protagonist's fragility and loneliness in the wealthy household. It seemed to foretell the tragic ending, too.

Without a mother, Lin Daiyu was arranged by her father to be taken care of by her grandmother, entering the rich Jia family. Although the family welcomed Lin, she could not help but had a sense of solitude surrounded by the family's merry gatherings. Her poignant beauty caught the eyes of her cousin Jia Baoyu. But predestined in previous lives, their relationship was set to be doomed.

In the following five scenes, roles of Jia and Lin were mainly presented by different young actors and actresses from Hong Kong and Guangdong. Their polished acting made the different stages of the lovers' relationship and their character stand out.

The oriental fantasy was aesthetically demonstrated in the second scene "Daiyu buries falling flowers". In the Grandview Garden, the lovers were surrounded by flying petals in Spring. Saddened by the scene, Lin buried the petals and asked herself who will bury her if she passes away. She was joined by Jia, performed by a young actress, known as nuxiaosheng, which is common in Chinese opera.

In the past when there were not that many female actresses, female roles were also taken by male actors, known as nandan, such as Mei Lanfang.

Although Jia may not be a fickle lover, his uncertainty on the vision of love could be perceived through the third scene "Qingwen mends the peacock cloak". His maid Qingwen acted like a spoiled child when mending Jia's cloak in front of him.

The emotions became more intense from scene four, "Burning her verses, Daiyu passes away". Learning about the marriage news of Jia and Xue Baochai, arranged by the grandmother for good fortune, Lin was nearly half-dead. Lin was saddened by the past memories with her lover and burnt the love verses in front of her maid Zijuan, who promised to worship her after her death. Lin passed away in the same hour when her cousins got wed.

On the other hand, Jia was heartbroken when he found out that the bride was not Lin, whom he learnt that had passed away, in the fifth scene "Baoyu regrets his marriage". The performance left an even deeper impression in the audience with the actor singing in Guhong, or imperial language. It was a northern dialect with a Cantonese accent that is used in classic Cantonese opera, but there are now few people who know Guhong with the passing away of old actors and actresses.

Missing his lover, Jia seemed to be able to travel through time and space to meet Lin in heaven-like place in the last scene, "Everlasting regret at the land of illusion." To his disappointment, Lin chose her own destiny by ceasing the bond with him. Was it true or fake? Jia could not tell until he woke up, just to find that everything was just a dream.

As opposed to the earlier delicate portrayal, Lin looked unfettered and enlightened here. Such a strong character was vividly presented by the refined performance of Cantonese opera star Jiang Wenduan.

Perhaps in a highly patriarchal society 400 years ago, the writer Cao had already paved the way for a feminist tract.

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