Concern that it's soon curtains for street opera

Only a few troupes left performing in Hokkien and Teochew as audience numbers plunge

Quality assurance compliance executive Danson Ong, 27, performing with the Xiao Dong Tian Hokkien opera troupe in Ang Mo Kio last Friday.
Quality assurance compliance executive Danson Ong, 27, performing with the Xiao Dong Tian Hokkien opera troupe in Ang Mo Kio last Friday. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

As a child, Madam Xio Kim Kee's Chinese opera training was gruelling. Wushu classes started at 7am with a short lunch break for porridge, followed by intensive singing lessons. A wrong step made or a wrong note sung would invite a caning.

Just 11, she also had to perform at the nightly show. "We performed to large crowds and were very much in demand, especially during the seventh month," said Madam Xio. "We performed 250 days a year. Opera was our life."

Today, the 78-year-old head of the Xiao Kee Lin Hokkien opera troupe fears the decades of rigorous training, tears and beatings will come to naught.

Madam Xio said her troupe - one with a 70-year history - is likely to close within two years.

Hers is one of about a dozen such troupes left performing in the dialects of Hokkien and Teochew, and some estimate that audience numbers have been shaved by 80 per cent. They have been ousted by getai, which connects to a larger audience pool with its pop ditties and Mandarin songs.

Opera troupes are usually hired by temples, religious groups and hawkers when they celebrate the birthdays of deities or seek their blessings. The operatic form is seen as an offering to deities and spirits.

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Ms Elaine Ng, the National Arts Council's (NAC) senior director of sector development in the performing arts, said the council does not support performances organised for religious causes or held at religious venues "due to their non-secular nature".

Getai has gained traction because the language barrier of opera makes it difficult to draw young audiences, said Mr Nick Shen Weijun, a freelance actor and creative director of the Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew opera troupe. "The Hokkien used in getai is usually simpler, while the dialect usage in opera is more profound, making it harder for young people to connect," he said.

Opera was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. By 1881, there were about 240 opera performers in Singapore, according to sociologist Terence Chong. Its golden era spanned the 1930s to 1950s. Unrest and a shaky economy, among other factors, affected viewership in the 1950s and 1960s, and later, the Government's push to replace dialects with Mandarin contributed to its decline.

Singapore's urbanisation proved a challenge as well. A researcher of intangible cultural heritage, Dr Wong Chee Meng, said: "Moving into a new urban environment of HDB estates also meant a loss in communal lifestyle, with noise and traffic regulations in the 1970s further limiting Chinese opera activities."

He added that street opera's perceived association with religious practices continues to limit its support from the younger generation and public institutions despite its legitimacy as intangible heritage.

And as audiences shrank, earnings stagnated. Traditional streetside opera troupes get paid about $1,500 to $1,800 on average for a performance featuring 10 to 20 actors. Some venue hosts even try to haggle the price down to $1,200.

Actors make a paltry sum - usually less than $80 a night - as hundreds of dollars are spent on hiring musicians, transport, as well as labour for props and the setting-up and dismantling of the stage.

In many cases, the troupes are now surviving thanks to the passion of a handful of fans.

Owing to the lack of interest and income, the 154-year-old Lao Sai Tao Yuan would have made its final curtain call by the end of the year, but Mr Shen bought it over.

His grandmother was an opera aficionado and grandfather an opera drummer, and he grew up fascinated by that world. In a year, the troupe does about 100 street performances.

A researcher in theatrical arts, Dr Caroline Chia, said that for the traditional art form to survive, young people need to get interested.

There have also been suggestions to provide translated materials for the audience, as well as the creation of an online platform with the updated performance dates of the remaining troupes today.

Housewife Josephine Soh, 56, who was watching a Xiao Dong Tian Hokkien opera troupe performance last Friday in Ang Mo Kio, said that she gets up-to-date information on troupes' schedules via leaflets distributed at temples.

She attends a show almost every month. "I prefer live opera to television broadcasts. I enjoy watching this troupe because the actors are extremely dedicated to their craft."

But it is perhaps not all doom and gloom for Chinese opera. While the professional streetside troupes are struggling, there remains a vibrant amateur scene.

The NAC said there are about 100 active Chinese opera groups - the bulk of them amateur - practising a diverse range of opera styles and genres. The council said it supports an average of 70 Chinese opera activities each year.NAC's Ms Ng said: "NAC will continue to support Chinese opera groups, including street opera troupes, who present quality arts activities focused on arts and culture appreciation."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline Concern that it's soon curtains for street opera. Subscribe