Cantonese opera sung in English to Western and Chinese music

Frances Wong (left) plays Emperor Guangxu in the opera and See Too Hoi Siang (right) the concubine Zheng Fei.
Frances Wong (left) plays Emperor Guangxu in the opera and See Too Hoi Siang (right) the concubine Zheng Fei.PHOTO: CHINESE THEATRE CIRCLE

A revised version of the Chinese opera, Intrigues In The Qing Imperial Court, sung in English to both Western and Chinese music by the Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC), will be staged at the Jubilee Theatre on Saturday.

The show of court intrigues in the last days of the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911) is a preview for English-educated fans here before CTC takes it to the Seventh International Cantonese Opera Festival in Guangzhou, China, next month.

Written by the group's chairman and playwright Leslie Wong, 75, the tragic opera was hailed as the world's first full-length Cantonese opera sung entirely in English, after its premiere at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre in 2002.

CTC has since taken the Chinese opera in English to cultural and opera festivals to several countries, including Ireland in 2005, and Ukraine in 2010, where it won the Successful Modernisation of Traditional Theatre Award. It has also been performed frequently at theatres here in the past 14 years.

Excerpts from the opera, which took Wong "more than a year of research and writing", were also performed by CTC at the Lincoln Center in New York and South Korea in 2004, to rave reviews.

A Cantonese version of the opera made its debut at an arts festival in Shanghai in 2007. It was also performed at another cultural festival in Berlin last year.

  • BOOK IT / INTRIGUES IN THE QING IMPERIAL COURT

  • WHERE: Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel, 1, Beach Road

    WHEN: Saturday, 7.30 pm

    ADMISSION: $50, $30, $20 and $10 with 20 per cent discount for those over 60, students and Passion Card members (Call 6323-4862/ 9630-2886 or go to www.botempus.com/ctc)

Wong says he wrote the opera to be sung in English to "develop Chinese opera further by reaching out to the world, where English is a popular language".

The new revised version of the opera is directed by his wife Joanna Wong, 76, who is the group's artistic director and plays Empress Cixi in it. He adds that the opera is now 21/2 hours long, down from the original three.

"I tweaked the scene where the Qing government signed unequal treaties with the 11 foreign nations that had conflicts with China in the early 1900s," he says.

There are changes made to the 24-member cast as well. They include a husband-and-wife team, Henry and Tina Wong, who play Prince Chung and concubine Jing Fei respectively, for the first time.

Singapore-based German language teacher Peer Metze plays Field-Marshal Count von Waldersee, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces. CTC's leading actress Frances Wong plays the protagonist as Emperor Guangxu, while See Too Hoi Siang plays the emperor's favourite concubine, Zheng Fei.

The supporting cast includes other CTC artistes and students, as well as members of the Kreta Ayer Community Club's Cantonese Opera Troupe.

CTC's music director Bu Canrong, who directs the music, will play the gaohu and violin in the performance which comes with English and Chinese subtitles.

CTC artistic director Wong says: "We have performed the opera in English over 10 times now to interest the young in Chinese opera and succeeded in a small way. This is only a start, and I am glad it has become our signature performance today, especially overseas."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Cantonese opera sung in English to Western and Chinese music'. Print Edition | Subscribe