Chinese opera is notable for its profundity and long history. Entering its sixth edition in 2015, the Chinese Opera Festival travels through time and space to explore the beauty of operas from different ages and regions of China. Through an intriguing juxtaposition of village and palace, tradition and innovation, the Festival brings audience to their feet with a series of dazzling performances.
The Festival opens with three spectacular performances by the highly acclaimed Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe. Farewell My Concubine will be staged in complete edition and played by maestro Shang Changrong and the accomplished actress Shi Yihong. Virtuoso Chen Xiaoyun will play the lead in all-time classic How a Dead Cat was Substituted for a New-born Prince. Prepare to be amused by the gorgeous Sun Wukong’s Battle at the Spider’s Web Grotto, a classy and innovative rendition of the tale of the Monkey King.
Marked by a brilliant combination of opera, dances, acrobatics and martial arts, Mulian opera is one of the oldest repertoires in China with a strong regional flavor. This year, the Festival introduces the Mulian Opera Series by featuring three distinctly different troupes. Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian will make their debut in Hong Kong by performing classic Mulian episodes on three evenings. The Centre for Preservation of Qi Opera of Hunan (formerly the Qi Opera Theatre of Hunan) returns to Hong Kong to stage their gaoqiang version of Mulian Rescues His Mother and other excerpts. The opera troupes from Limu and Lixi Villages of Qimen, Anhui Province, will impress the audience with their simplicity and authenticity by staging playlets normally watched at rural venues.
A new Cantonese Opera, Her Majesty Wu Zetian, will be performed by renowned artists Wan Fai-yin, Yuen Siu-fai, Tang Mi-ling, and Wan Yuk-yu. Supported by budding talents, the strong cast promises a superb performance which fans fervently look forward to. Monk Biancai Releases the Demon from the Eight Classic Pieces sung in South China is re-arranged by veteran singer Leung So-kam who returns again as the Artistic Director, and performed by Cantonese Opera stars Law Kar-ying, Ng Chin-fung, Leung Chi-kit and Cheng Wing-mui to revive the charm of the archaic singing style on the verge of disappearing.
The Peking Opera Theatre of Beijing will bring a faithful rendition of Elegant Sounds of Good Times, based on the rare and exclusive scripts preserved in the Forbidden City. Theatre’s experts strive to restore Peking Opera in its pristine form that every detail, ranging from stage setting to performing style, is meticulously attended to. The austere performance of Wen Ruhua, Hu Wenge and Tan Xiaozeng is just part of that faithfulness. Tang Yuen-ha and Geng Tianyuan of the Jingkun Theatre from Hong Kong will join the Shandong Peking Opera Theatre to present The Number One Scholar as the Matchmaker and excerpts from Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu and Su Opera Troupe will stage the Su Opera for the first time in Hong Kong alongside with the Kunqu Opera classics. Famed actress Wang Fang will join Zhao Wenlin in Scepters Piling on the Couch and Yu Jiulin in The Story of the Most Famous Beauty to give enchanting performances.
In addition to stage performances, the Festival will continue launching extension activities this year including seminar, stage tour, film screenings, talks and exhibitions. To complement the Mulian Opera Series, a forum on Chinese Opera and Sacrificial Offering will be held among scholars and experts to examine the origin of Chinese opera.
Cultural Presentations Section
Leisure and Cultural Services Department
The staging of the Chinese folklore, Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother, dates back to more than a millennium, to the time of Northern Song (960–1127). It is one of the oldest repertories in Chinese theatre. It has its origin in Buddhist scriptures, but as a popular form of entertainment, it was found in almost every part of China. Its popularity ran parallel to religious activities, rituals and folk culture. In traditional Chinese literature, sacrificial rituals topped all forms of rites and etiquettes. Mulian opera is therefore performed on the fairgrounds of the Yulan (Ullambana) Festival, at Buddhist and Taoist services, funerals and during the Hungry Ghost Festival to expiate the sins of the dead and deliver them from purgatory. Often, when disaster strikes, whether as a cause of Man or nature, staging the Mulian opera is believed to have the power of expelling evil and returning calm to the land. On the other hand, if the land has enjoyed clement weather and bumper harvests for years, staging such plays is a way of thanksgiving. There are rituals to be performed before and after the core performance, which may not form part of the storyline, but they make up a holistic experience for the audience attending the Mulian opera. The integration of ritual and performance therefore sets the Mulian opera apart from other performing art forms with its rich vernacular colour.
During the Wanli years of Ming (1573–1620), a literati Zheng Zhizhen of Anhui set out to propagate Buddhism via traditional theatre, with the purpose of guiding people to good. He compiled and wrote Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother – Script to Guide People to be Good and Benevolent in 1579. It was soon used for staging in various parts of China and became one of the most representative works of folk theatre of the Ming Dynasty. It was a time when Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism were equally practiced and honoured by the government, so Zheng’s adaptation was a perfect amalgamation of the doctrines of the three. The Confucian spirit was introduced to the Buddhist stories, the concept of filial piety was upheld, the Confucian advocation of loyalty and filial piety was highlighted, while the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation, the Taoist concepts of yin and yang, ‘mandate of heaven’ etc. , all fitted into this convenient vehicle to inculcate the masses. By the Qing period, there were still records of the Mulian opera being performed. There was even an ‘official’ collection coming from the palaces, entitled Golden Rules Exhorting Goodness (Quan shan jin ke). Although later Mulian opera was banned by the Qing court, the tradition existed in the rural areas and the playlets were performed in thanksgiving fairs. Even to this day, the ritual performance A Gathering of Immortals for the Goddess of Mercy is often performed in Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong. The play is related to The Birthday of the Goddess of Mercy, which is the ninth episode of Zheng Zhizhen’s Scripts to Guide People to be Good and Benevolent of the Ming Dynasty. In it, the Goddess would show a number of incarnations.
The series encompasses an incredible range, whether in terms of content or performing format. The emphasis is on being as close to life as possible - but rather than dramatizing everyday life, it sets out to make this form of theatre part of everyday life. The core of the story, that of Monk Mulian going into Hell to save his mother, links up all sorts of art forms - playlets, folk songs, dance, acrobatics, martial arts, stunts, and even demonstration of making paper figurines. Past records show that during the Northern Song period (960–1127), a performance could last for seven or eight days. By early Ming, its length could cover up to fifteen days. The diversity of the Mulian opera, interspersed with burlesques, farce and even lampoons, was typical of plebeian entertainment. While they create laughter, they were also poking fun at supernatural powers and the highly moralistic stance of society. The conflicting nature and juxtaposition of the didactic purpose and the humanism of Mulian opera produce an interesting revelation of its rich content, as well as the tolerant attitudes of the plebeian social culture.
Coordination of the Mulian Opera Series is assisted by the Ministry of Culture of China.
Translated by KCL Language Consultancy Ltd.