Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Letter to Pui-yan

Dear Pui-yan,

Hope you are well and would not be too astonished reading this. Personally we don't know each other, but I have run into you on several occasions, mostly at the theatre. I recognise you because you were accompanying your parents, whose photos are published from time to time in the media. And I have read about your daring decision to pursue a career in Cantonese opera.

As a devoted supporter of this archaic art and a big fan of Mr Dickson Tong, I am writing you this letter to share my two-cent worth about your recent performance at Kwai Tsing Theatre, in the hope of providing some feedback for your consideration as you prepare for the re-run next month.

As you would probably agree, the three titles staged just now, Rejuvenation of the Red Plum, Tale of the Purple Hairpin and Princess Changping (Pardon me for using the most common translation because I don't think Floral Princess makes any sense to a non-Chinese reader or audience) are by far the best of Mr Tong's works but also the most difficult to perform, let alone excel. It is true that one generation after another have enjoyed them very much over the decades, and staging them makes great economic sense. But for someone like you who have but several years of on-stage experience, it might be too much of a challenge.

Obviously you have made tremendous efforts to play well those full-blown characters, and you deserve a big applause not only for your endeavours but also for the artistic level attained. Having said that, I did, and still do, expect more in the delivery of those adorable and respectable characters. Certainly you have done a good job, but in my opinion, not good enough. Just to share a few points here for your contemplation:

For me, the ultimate value of any form of drama and opera is about resonance with the heart by re-presenting the emotional and psychological trajectory of the characters in any given plot. Actors and actresses are appraised for their capability of arousing a emotional response from the audience. In other words, the value of drama and opera goes way beyond telling an interesting story. Otherwise why do we bother to watch those classic titles every now and then when we have already learnt the plots by heart? These art forms should, therefore, be emotionally arousing and thought-provoking by telling a story in whatever manner designed and delivered by the directors, actors and actresses.

In the case of Cantonese opera, delivery is even more burdensome and complicated because it requires an aesthetic and skilful combination of singing, speaking and body movements. These techniques are meant to be vehicles of emotional expression. Excellence in any one of them is by no means easy, and certainly distracting and exhausting enough, as we can see that some prominent players in the industry are actually great singers but poor actors and actresses. Technical mastery of any of these aspects just does not necessarily guarantee success in achieving their ultimate purpose.

Therefore, I think it is not good enough to sing well or move the limbs and body perfectly as rehearsed. All these elements need to be organically and proficiently integrated, so that they become manifestations of what the characters have in mind, why and how. Ideally, the conveyance should be profound enough to hit a nerve of the audience, stirring up emotions, good or bad.

From what I saw in Rejuvenation of the Plum Blossom and Tale of the Purple Hairpin, I think you could have done better in bringing to life the characters and their distinctive personalities with more strength. Now that you have attained a certain level of mastery of the technicalities, it is time for you to go the extra mile.

Having said so, I do agree that the female leads in these titles may be too arduous and sophisticated for actresses with limited experience like you. Moreover, too many reputable and seasoned actresses have performed these roles, and too familiar are the audience with them. Together all these factors have brought the audience's expectations to unreasonable height, even though they may not be consciously aware. I can't be spared either, having been in the theatre for more than 20 years. Certainly it is unfair, if discouraging, to someone devoted and hard-working like you. This is why I would suggest you attempt less sophisticated characters such as Tse So-chau in Butterfly and Red Pear Blossoms or Leng Sheung-sim in Goddess of the Nine Heavens. Even the masterpieces of Fong Yim-fun like Goddess of River Luo and Snow in June are good choices too. Not that these characters are easy to grasp and deliver, but comparatively speaking they seem slightly more straightforward. It is important to choose the right starting point because you need to build up confidence and convince yourself that you can make it, do it well before anyone else. Once your confidence is secured, skills sharpened and experience consolidated, you would be in a better position to meet the challenge of delivering those classic characters with greater dexterity and stronger impact.

Pardon me for my long-windedness, or if you find anything harsh or offensive. I don't mean to. As a fan of the art, I just feel obliged of sharing my thoughts in the hope that it would be helpful to you and the industry as a whole, in one way or another. You have already done a great job, but there is no end to the pursuit of excellence, as the saying goes. Keep it up and I'm sure you can do it.

On a final note, I chose to write to you in English because I want to spare you and me, or at least to minimise, any potential and unwanted trouble. You should know better than me that too many brainless fools out there have nothing better to do than sowing discord, hatred and suspicions. Any critical feedback, albeit well-intended, might be distorted to cause harm. This is precisely what I have been trying my best to avoid.

Yours faithfully,

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