Three years before the Xiqu Centre opened as Hong Kong’s first purpose-built center for Chinese opera, award-winning Cantonese opera singer Keith Lai was given a daunting task: choose one opera for the center’s Experimental Cantonese Opera series that could represent the traditional art form. In China, the different vernacular cultures have given birth to over three hundred sub-genres of Chinese opera. Cantonese opera alone can be traced back to the pre-Qin period (2100 BC-221 BC), accumulating thousands of years of folk and stage songs. But Lai didn’t need long to decide. He saw a clear choice right from the beginning: Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬).

Xiang Yu, played by Keith Lai. Image courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

Farewell My Concubine is a classic among classics,” says Lai, taking a break during a rehearsal at the Xiqu Centre, which opened last November. In 2016, the young performer and his troupe presented his radically revised version of the opera at the Shanghai Centre of Chinese Operas, which had secured a collaboration contract with the Xiqu Centre, still under construction at the time. “We wanted to introduce the past, present and future elements of Cantonese opera to the Shanghai audience,” Lai recalls. “But since they weren’t familiar with Cantonese opera, picking a story that all Chinese knew would enhance their appreciation of an unfamiliar art form.”

It’s an interesting choice because Farewell My Concubine is most commonly associated with Peking opera, not Cantonese opera. It tells the legend of Xiang Yu, the Hegemon-King of Western Chu during the Chu–Han Contention (206-202 BC), who was on the verge of total defeat by Liu Bang, a former brother at arms who ultimately betrayed Xiang in order to take the throne for himself. When Xiang found himself surrounded, he begged his favorite concubine to leave. She refused and danced for him one last time before committing suicide with his sword.

When the opera was first performed in Beijing in 1918, it stunned the audience with its unconventional incorporation of tai chi and tai chi swords. The delicate, flowing movements of the martial art, which is practiced for defense and strength, complements with the soft, flexible blade. Together, they bring out Yu’s passion and elegance in her dance, while the soulful lyrics and strong beats of Kunqu melodies—borrowed from one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera—capture the pain and helplessness of the fallen king.

The opera proved so popular that it has been adapted into other operatic forms, including Cantonese opera, as well as entirely different media: Hong Kong author Lillian Lee penned a novel under the same name, while Chinese director Chen Kaige’s 1993 film based on the novel won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Lai’s rendition is yet another adaptation but by no means a conventional one. Since its premiere in Shanghai in 2016, it has been re-staged in Black Box Theatre in Hong Kong in 2017 and finally, according to Lai, it “returned home” when the Xiqu Centre opened this past winter. Lai hoped his commission would embody the younger generation’s vision of Cantonese opera by using new technology to enhance the stage effects of traditional theatre, and by exploring the psychological portrayal of characters instead of plainly telling stories through lyrics, as is done in traditional Chinese operas.

But adapting a classic Peking opera into a modern Cantonese opera is no easy feat. “Peking opera is very elaborate in its narrative and character development whereas experimental Cantonese opera is short,” explains Lai. “We can only select the representative parts and the three most significant characters to be included in our production.” He picked Xiang, Consort Yu—the titular concubine—and Xiang’s loyal general, a symbol of Xiang’s 8,000 followers, as the backbone of an abridged story.

In the traditional Peking opera, which emphasizes a story’s narrative, Xiang’s lyrics describe in detail the death of his concubine and general, and his lamentation about the pointlessness of life after their departures. “In contrast, one of the most distinctive features of Cantonese opera is its rich emotions,” says Lai. “In depicting a character’s anger in the iconic sword fight, Cantonese opera singers belt the songs out. In portraying a scene, gongs and drums are used to create rowdiness. Even in our modern version, we want to focus on the characters’ psyche instead of just storytelling.”

Xiang Yu hallucinating. Image courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

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