Earlier this month, I photographed the Cantonese Opera Festival presented by the Vancouver Cantonese Opera. The two-day festival included a program of several duets and highlights from different operas. It was my fourth time shooting their performance, so I was getting more familiar with the members of the group and their process.
Many of the members have been with the group for at least a decade or more. It’s a tight-knit group that pours their heart and soul into every one of their performances. Cantonese opera is a dying art, but this group is doing everything they can to keep it alive. Although it appeals mostly to older generations who grew up watching performances during its heyday, the group has attracted two of its youngest members in recent years. The twenty-something recruits have even performed on stage with the rest of the performers.
Traditional Chinese Instruments And Old Style Musical Notation
Besides the elaborate makeup and ornate costumes, another interesting aspect of Cantonese opera are the traditional Chinese instruments played in the orchestra. One thing I discovered is that Cantonese opera uses a different musical notation. Chinese characters are used instead of notes. It’s an ancient style of musical notation that’s rarely used today.
Some of the classical Chinese instruments played in a Cantonese opera are the guzheng, pipa, ruan, and yangqin. The guzheng and pipa are probably the more recognized instruments in Chinese music. I’m less familiar with the other two. They certainly aren’t the typical instruments in your grade school music class!
The Makeup Process
The other neat part of the whole process is the performer applying makeup. It’s a lengthy process that starts with a white base and then details are added layer by layer. Even the makeup alone is an art form.
Part of the magic is in the makeup. Once applied, the performers seem to transform into their characters immediately. It’s hard to recognize anyone once they have been made-up. Even after shooting four performances, I still have a hard time figuring out who’s who pre and post makeup. If you ever want to disguise your identity, this would be one way to do it!
A Selection of Cantonese Operas
Usually the Cantonese opera shoots I’ve done in the past were for performances of one opera in its entirety. This time was different: the festival program included the best highlights of several chosen operas. It was a nice smorgasbord of memorable scenes for Cantonese opera lovers. Here are some select photos from different operas.
These are just a few of the photos I shot during the two days. If you’d like to see more, please check out my Flickr album. I also have albums for past performances I’ve shot—Princess Cheung Ping and Romance of the Broken Mirror. If you want to know more about how I prepared for the shoot, the gear used, and lessons learned, I’ve written about the experience in a previous post.
It’s always a treat for me to shoot the Vancouver Cantonese Opera and be around people dedicated to their art. Everyone is so talented in their craft and clearly devoted to performing their best for the audience. I feel lucky to have the chance to document it all.