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To be a Cantonese opera star

By Eunice Yoon, CNN
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Cantonese opera's unique look
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This centuries-old Chinese art was recently recognized by the United Nations as a masterpiece of cultural heritage
  • One of the distinctive features is the heavy white and red make-up, which performer apply themselves
  • The art has been declining in popularity despite the government's efforts to support it

Hong Kong, China (CNN) -- My cameraman is laughing at my face. Literally.

Normally, this type of behavior might offend. However, considering that half my face is painted a shade redder than the other and one of my eyebrows is lopsided, I am letting his guffaws slide.

I am at the Ko Shan Theatre in Hong Kong, learning about the fascinating world of Cantonese opera. This centuries-old Chinese art was recently recognized by the United Nations as a masterpiece of cultural heritage. One of the distinctive features is the heavy white and red make-up. Performers, as I found out, are trained to paint their own faces. Today, a young opera singer, Elisa Li, is attempting to help me as I dab the colored creams on my cheeks and brows. Sadly, I am making a bit of a mess of myself.

Li attempts to console me. "It takes years to learn how to do this," she says.

She would know. She's been studying the art since 2002 but considers herself a newcomer. One of her fellow performers, Franco Yuen, has been on stage as an opera star since he was 7 years old. That was over five decades ago.

"People can learn Chinese culture through this art. It involves history, music, and the mode of expression is very Chinese," he tells me as stage hands bustle around us. "I feel grateful that the art is being recognized, and to able to spread the spirit of Chinese culture. That makes me feel proud to be a Chinese opera actor."

Video: World at Work: Cantonese opera
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Yuen has put in his dues for this privilege. He has trained in martial arts, singing, and acting and is disciplined about exercising his voice before every show. He has memorized too many lines to count and has developed the stamina to power through operas which average 3 to 4 hours each. Over time, he has adapted to wearing numerous cumbersome costumes though he is still not a fan of taking on female roles. Apparently, the female roles require the actor to wear special hair that needs to be pasted along the temples. "It is so irritating," he says.

The story lines vary and incorporate topics you would expect from an opera in the West -- war, love, comedy, tragedy, murder. They are divided into two camps -- "wen" which focuses on intellect and culture where the movements of the performers are more deliberate and facial expressions exaggerated. "Wu" utilizes martial arts and fast action to tell stories.

One of the unique characteristics of Cantonese opera is that the lyrics can be deemed more important than the melodies so the performers are encouraged to sing freestyle. In other words, they can make up the songs as they go along. Imagine a singer during a performance of La Boheme mixing and matching tunes from La Traviata or The Magic Flute. There would be mutiny.

Cantonese opera encourages a laid back atmosphere borne out of a need to reach the average person in Guangdong (a reason the songs are performed in the local Cantonese dialect.) Performances are often held outdoors while little old ladies play mahjong and families have picnics of Chinese dim sum. "We are from the streets," Yuen explains. "We don't resist popular culture. Our art is for everyone."

The art has been declining in popularity despite the government's efforts to support it. It's hard for Cantonese opera to compete with pop music, Li explains to me as she pats powder on my face, helping to disguise my make-up blunders. Even so, she likes Cantonese opera and plans to make it her career.

I, on the other hand, better stick to journalism.