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Friday, March 23, 2018, 18:24
New spring of Canton opera
By Li Meng
Friday, March 23, 2018, 18:24 By Li Meng

A recent adaptation of the classic Cantonese opera, Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers, shows how a traditional form could be made to appeal to wider and younger audiences, writes Li Meng.

The HKAF production of Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers focused on the love theme. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Unconvinced by the original ending to Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers, a Cantonese opera classic written by the renowned playwright Tong Tik-sang six decades ago, the revered theater director Fredric Mao has restructured the classic, incorporating elements of modern theater. The new production premiered in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival

A passionate aficionado of the Cantonese opera, Mao hopes to build a platform where traditional and contemporary elements interact with each other in a well-tuned and harmonized manner. 

In this adaptation, Mao and his partner, the award-winning young playwright Kong Chun-kit, changed the focus of the piece, putting more emphasis on the universal theme of love. They believed such an approach would more easily arouse sympathy among viewers, especially the younger generation who may be facing similar troubles in their own lives. 

“The reason why young people feel little interested in Cantonese opera is because they think it is old, outdated and unrelated to their own lives,” said Mao. He says traditional opera practitioners, in order to catch the attention from fresh audiences and introduce a modern perspective into the classics, need to know what viewers care about and consider how they will respond to the story. 

Although Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers has been widely popular since its premier in 1958, Mao feels the work has obvious disadvantages, such as a relatively blurred theme as well as an ill-prepared and awkward ending. Hence the decision to adapt a traditional opera form to the idioms of modern and contemporary theater. 

Director Fredric Mao says traditional opera producers should know what present-day audiences care about. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As well as polishing the original script, Mao cut the four-hour piece to 150 minutes, keeping in mind the shorter attention spans of present-day audiences. He believes the compacted piece with fewer interludes, shorter percussion passages and a firmer structure would be easier for the new audiences to watch and enjoy. Mao considered putting modern theatrical elements into the traditional Chinese opera form to smoothen its plot development, with a view to attracting audiences who may not be familiar with the set forms and themes in a Cantonese opera.

Tweaking the ending

“As an outsider, I do not bear too much responsibility for inheriting Cantonese opera traditions, and thus have more freedom to adapt such a classical piece,” Mao said. 

Mao and Kong put much effort into revising the original script. Happy with some of the arias sung by the lead characters, they adapted the structure and storyline of the evergreen piece to resolve their dissatisfaction with the original ending. 

“I, to be honest, can hardly be persuaded by the happy ending,” Mao said. “Quite a few things were left unsaid by the playwright, and the audience could be confused by Princess Baihua and her lover Liuyun suddenly getting together in the end.” 

As a historical tale of political intrigue, Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers tells a story of hatred, betrayal, war and love. The emperor gets wind that Prince Anxi had been plotting a coup against him. He asks Zou Hualong and Jiang Liuyun to infiltrate Anxi’s mansion as spies. Jiang Liuyun meets Princess Baihua in the forbidden pavilion of Anxi’s palace and the duo falls in love at first sight. 

Fredric (left) discusses with young actors. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

When Princess Baihua gifts Liuyun a sword as a token of her eternal love, an unexpected conflict and deception occurs. The story, however, has a romantic ending as Liuyun and the princess, after overcoming misunderstandings and political barriers, are reunited as a couple. 

Although Mao and Kong made quite a few revisions to the structure and length of the widely acclaimed show, they did not change the conversational style of the script. In the process of re-creating the classics, Mao loathed to modernize the style of lyrics and conversations. For example, he considered it unnatural for characters in traditional costumes to speak and sing in modern language. 

“Balance is the most crucial thing,” he says. 

Having been involved in the theatrical world for about half a century, this is the first time Mao has adapted and directed a Cantonese opera. During rehearsals, he talked with experienced traditional opera practitioners, including music director Li Cheung-ming and rehearsal tutor Hong Hai, to sharpen his knowledge of Cantonese opera traditions, and he says his collaboration with young actors provided him a fresh angle to examine the “cross-over” experiment.

“As I train and work with these young actors, I ask them to pay more attention to the interpretation of roles,” says Mao. He says a theatrical work, traditional or modern, cannot be well developed if the characters lack uniqueness and individuality.

In his eyes, the positive involvement of young and talented practitioners plays quite a crucial role in promoting the development of such a traditional genre. 

“Merely copying or imitation is far from enough,” he says. “In order to improve their own skills and creativity, young actors and singers need to explore the story and express their thoughts and emotions in a more honest way.”

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