Tracing Origins – The Life and Times of Cantonese Opera’s Laosheng
In a fit of fury, a mistress is murdered
Under the moon and stars, a man pursues a rare talent
To show his loyalty, a general sacrifices himself
These scenes tell the story of the laosheng’s artistry
Song Jiang Kills Yan Xijiao is startling and suspenseful; Xiao He Pursues Han Xin is full of earnest vigour; and General Yang’s Sacrifice is tragic in its desolation. These three opera excerpts of different plots are all showcases for the laosheng (elderly male role). Tracing Origins is an opportunity to explore and appreciate the particular artistry of this character type.
Legendary Cantonese opera icon Leng Chi Pak only had one disciple during his lifetime — Christopher Choo, a veteran of Singapore’s Cantonese opera scene. This laosheng showcase is produced and directed by Choo, who also stars in the excerpts along with local wenwusheng (scholar/warrior male role) Philip Chan and new-generation huadan (female role) May Choong.
These three excerpts are staged with one 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 a small venue, with this intimate staging, Tracing Origins honours both the art of Cantonese opera, and the memory of a beloved master.
Song Jiang Kills Yan Xijiao is based on a plot point in Water Margin, in which Song Jiang kills Yan Xijiao. This excerpt is a signature showcase for a laosheng and a feisty huadan in Cantonese opera. Choo takes the stage as the middle-aged Song Jiang sporting a black beard. Before he kills Yan Xijiao, his agitated emotions are expressed through his technique of wielding the artificial beard, and the results are transfixing. As the female lead, Choong portrays a subversive and fiery character and conveys her intense love-hate relationship with Song Jiang with refreshing intensity. This excerpt borrows Peking opera’s Siping tune and is a great test of the performers’ skills.
Xiao He Pursues Han Xin, also known as Xiao He Pursues Han Xin by Moonlight, is a showcase for Cantonese opera’s laosheng and wenwusheng, with many wonderful moments of singing. Choo plays Xiao He and Chan plays Han Xin. Together, they share a scene where they spur on their horses to swifter speeds. Choo has a key moment where he falls off his horse, showcasing his striking “shoe-flinging” technique.
Known as one of the “Four Kings of Cantonese Opera”, Leng Chi Pak was famous for his performance in General Yang’s Sacrifice. This excerpt follows the southern style of Cantonese opera, including signature techniques such as tiao da jia1, shui bo lang2, and using the tune of yan er luo3 To set tragic and desolate mood. Choo uses a full-throated and melodious singing style modelled after his master. He sings of Yang Jiye’s despair as he is trapped in Two Wolves Mountain; surrounded by enemies, he ultimately chooses to kill himself by smashing his head against a monument.
1tiao da jia : sets of stylised movements in the southern style of Cantonese opera that are used to depict different scenarios
2shui bo lang: a series of footwork that conveys intense emotions
3yan er luo: a specific tune usually accompanied by the suona as the lead musical instrument