Cantonese opera master goes back to his roots in Tracing Origins

Tracing Origins runs at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from April 22 to 24. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

SINGAPORE - Home-grown Cantonese opera master Christopher Choo will be going back to his roots for his upcoming production, Tracing Origins - The Life And Times Of Cantonese Opera's Laosheng.

In the show, which runs at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from April 22 to 24, he will cast the spotlight on the role of the laosheng (elderly gentleman), which was the lead role until the 1930s, when opera scripts started to evolve to focus more on romance.

The younger wenwusheng (male scholar/warrior) and huadan (female) have since overtaken the laosheng as the leading roles.

Choo, 62, is one of the few professional Cantonese opera artistes here. He can play a variety of characters such as the xusheng (bearded male), chousheng (comic), hualian (painted face) and laodan (elderly female). But for Tracing Origins, he will go back to playing his original laosheng roles.

He also produces and directs the show, which stars local wenwusheng Philip Chan and new-generation huadan May Choong.

In Choo's three portrayals, the colour of his beard will change to reflect the different ages of the characters. A black beard represents someone aged 30 to 50, a grey beard is for characters aged 50 to 70 and a white beard indicates a man above 70.

The three excerpts are staged with a table and two chairs, following the basic setting of a traditional Chinese opera performance. Different calligraphy and paintings appear as backdrops in each excerpt.

In the first, Song Jiang Kills Yan Xijiao, Choo incorporates Peking opera's siping tune and uses references to current affairs to add creativity to the show.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

In the second, Xiao He Pursues Han Xin By Moonlight, the characters will showcase operatic skills such as the rarely seen "shoe-flinging" technique that depicts falling off a horse.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

The third piece, General Yang's Sacrifice, is presented in the traditional Cantonese way of performing, free of influences from Peking and other forms of opera. It features Cantonese opera's signature techniques and footwork as well as the full-throated and melodious singing style. It depicts Yang Jiye's despair as he is trapped on Two Wolves Mountain, surrounded by enemies.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

This role and its techniques are modelled after Choo's late master Leng Chi Pak.

The showcase honours the legendary Cantonese opera icon, who died in 1992 at the age of 88, and commemorates his 70-year acting career. On Leng, Choo says: "I went into Cantonese opera because of him. He's also my origin and influence in life."

Choo idolised Leng and fantasised about being his disciple since a young age. In 1976, his dream came true when the opera master flew in with his troupe to perform in Singapore and Malaysia.

Moved by Choo's earnestness during a chance meeting, Leng took the 16-year-old as his only disciple during his lifetime. From then on, Choo would travel to Hong Kong annually to meet Leng. Both also exchanged letters, not just on the operatic art, but the philosophy of life.

"He was kind, caring, wise and humble," Choo recalls. "And he was not after the glamour as he kept a low profile outside his performances."

During his career, Choo also studied under the late Ren Da Xun, a master of the Northern operatic style in Hong Kong, and the well-known Singapore Cantonese opera actor and Cultural Medallion recipient, Joanna Wong Quee Heng.

Choo is an all-rounded Chinese opera performer who has graced many stages in China, Britain, the United States, Japan and Egypt.

One of the first to graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts' department of drama with a diploma in performance, he has also been involved with directing and acting in the local Chinese and English theatre scene, with productions such as The Peony Pavilion, Generals Of The Yang Family and Liu Bei Crosses The River To Meet His Bride.

An Esplanade spokesman says it came up with the idea of a show featuring laosheng to promote opera and let more people understand and continue the legacy.

Choo is on a mission to promote and preserve the art. Though many Singaporeans may not understand the dialects in operas now, he hopes they can still appreciate the art form. "Chinese opera is a total theatre incorporating singing, acting, dancing, martial arts, and even painting our faces," he says. "Every sound is music and every movement is dance."

Book It/Tracing Origins - The Life And Times Of Cantonese Opera's Laosheng

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: April 22 and 23, 8pm; April 24, 5pm
Admission: $35 from Esplanade
Info: Performed in Cantonese with English and Chinese surtitles

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