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Chinese Opera

Chinese opera is a cardinal institution in Chinese entertainment and culture. In spite of the fact that its popularity is decreasing in today's modern society, it is almost obligatory during important festivals on the Chinese calendar.

The modern day Chinese opera is based on a story put to music and dance, which emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the 18th Century, in the imperial court in Beijing, Chinese opera was associated with festivals and state occasions. In Hong Kong, performances are usually held during momentous occasions in informal bamboo-and-mat theaters that were temporarily erected in public areas.

Chinese opera vary in many regions. The Cantonese style opera is unlike those of the Chiu Chow due to the area's development under imperial aegis. In Beijing, operas are performed in Mandarin. It is really no surprise then that the official dialect, Cantonese, is manipulated in Hong Kong. The standard opera is based on folklore, legends, and historical incidents from the past.

Behind the glitz and glamour on stage are the esteemed actor-singers. Like most opera stars, Chinese operatic singers go through years of comprehensive training to procure a high-pitched falsetto. The artists are often accompanied by a traditional Chinese orchestra, with the string and wind instruments occupying one side and the percussion on the other side of the stage.

Not many people, especially those of the Western culture, appreciate the loud sound of gongs and drums that echo from the music pit. Initially, women were not allowed to make public appearances, and so female roles were portrayed by male actors. However, that tradition has died.

A distinct feature of Chinese opera is the makeup, movements, props, and colorful costumes. These features identify an actor's age, sex, and personality the moment he or she appears on stage. For example, in Beijing opera, a white patch on the nose suggests a comical character of low rank, while a fully white face shows an evil and treacherous character and a red face signifies a courageous but dim-witted man. Black faced actors are average people. Beards also bears a symbol and in total there are about 18 types of beards that carry different personalities. Chinese opera performers wear heavy makeup, which is a cosmetic style derived from the use of painted masks in older operatic forms. Apart from the exquisitely embroidered traditional costumes, head-dresses are a requisite in Chinese opera. The more elaborate the head-dress, the more significant the character. Costumes are extravagant in style in order to achieve as great a theatrical effect as possible. Like the makeup, the color codes of these costumes identify the various ranks, status, and personality of the performers. Purple for barbarians and yellow for emperors. Props are typically simple so that audiences can enhance their imagination, which is the best part of the entire spectacle. Chinese operas are a never-ending display of mime, dance, sword-play, and acrobatics. Gestures, movement and attitude are all incorporated with the performers' script for an impressive performance.

Traditional opera performances in Hong Kong are referred to as sunkung opera (god's eulogy opera), as they are performed to celebrate festivals or commemorate birthdays of numerous gods. Most of these performances are related to Taoism and Buddhism. It is especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival in the month of August that the operas are staged together with other activities to atone the sins of the dead. On each occasion, performances last up to five days.

With the decline of interest in Chinese opera, many reforms have been brought to revive its popularity. The most active reformer in Hong Kong is veteran actor Leung Hon Wai who owns his own opera troupe called the Hon Fung Cantonese Opera Group and has paid rights to produce new scripts. A symphony orchestra was introduced to accompany the opera, thus adding a spice of modernization to the event. The wife of the late Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, was the first of the reformers to influence changes in ancient operas. Her idea of operas featuring 'revolutionary model plays' convinced veteran artists that new stories could work in the popularization of this vivacious culture.

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