Cantonese Opera

Currents time out

a case for abstraction

David Yum

I attended Cantonese Opera on Saturday night- The Standard Chartered Tea House Theatre Experience at the Xiqu Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District.  That’s a lot of words, a lot of formal, official sounding words- a lot of what is happening in Hong Kong right now.  However, first things first, I need to say how astonishing it was to hear, see and yes, experience Cantonese opera at the Tea House.  In the opening performance,  the actor’s gaze politely greets, then startles, and finally locks into one’s eyes like a tomahawk missile.  Enthralled, one is absolutely brought back in time to 1930.  The Tea House is a clean, contemporary space.  Wood lattice screens add warmth and sound absorption, but allow the space to remain minimalist in feeling. The actress is dressed in simple attire, modern, all black.  Hair tied back, no large pieces of jewelry.  How did she create so much atmosphere?  I don’t know.  What I did understand was the power of abstraction.  An elaborate set reconstruction of a Cantonese opera house of the 1930’s, or similar period costume, would have only diluted the experience.   We would have all too quickly understood the artifice.  Instead, our imaginations filled in around the temporal shear the actress created.  This grand opening was a Nanyin, a popular ballad type in the Pearl River Delta region and, an important part of the vernacular singing tradition of Guangdong.  In this performance, abstraction reduced the dimensions the audience needed to see and hear; it also focused the energy of the performer.  Abstraction can be powerful.  I find the mechanism can be the same in architecture.  Conversely, new historicism or stylistic revivals are hindered by their own premise, never to move us in the way Nanyin can at the Tea House in West Kowloon.  This is a starting point for discussing what mechanisms evoke meaning in architecture.  The Xiqu Centre I am certain though, wanted me to consider the beauty of Cantonese song.  In the near rapture of being brought back to the past, the case was convincingly made. As even television and film are being reduced by on demand, user directed, binge streams, going to the theater can surmount all those waves.  Those forms all have unique aspects and wonderful examples; but, none can match theater’s ability to engage us in real time and, use our very own inner super powers to transport us a late night evening in 1930 Hong Kong.