Chinese Opera at the Sunbeam Theater

The Chinese Opera is feared, mocked, and sometimes reviled. Everyone will tell you not to go, they’ll get a look of terror in their eyes, and say, “Why?! It’s awful!” You should ignore them. If they have seen it, they have an experience you lack, and if they haven’t seen it, they are just speaking from hearsay. It is awesome. You should also bring provisions and have an escape route, just in case.

A little over a year ago I went to the Opera for the first time.  I wrote this up, but never published it for various reasons, but in this time of uprooting myself, I wanted to share my thoughts on something that is quintessentially Hong Kong.

The tonal language is set to music, in a format I struggle to understand in English or Italian with captions, but the story is always somewhat clear from the sets and the archetypes. The opera is more of a thing you view than a thing you are entertained by, on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next explosion or big reveal (not a superhero movie). You should really know the gist of the story before you go in, attending for the sake of the famed performers and the visual spectacle.

The Sunbeam Theater in North Point has been showing Opera for about 40 years; it has survived rent hikes, among other challenges to its existence. We bought tickets a few weeks in advance, booking some cheap seats in the back, in case we wanted to bolt.

North Point was home to a large group of Shanghainese immigrants, which still lends it a distinct cultural flavor: the excellent restaurants, a famed wet-market and cooked food center, the North Point Ferry, the Chun Yeung Street market surrounding a tram turn around, and the Theater make it one of the most interesting places in Hong Kong (I might be biased). Much of this cultural flair is due to the immigrant history from the cultural revolution. The arts flourish.

On the evening of our tickets, we turned the corner to the theater and saw people spilling out of the open air lobby into the sidewalk. Walking in, hip-flasks loaded, we were the tallest people around, also the youngest by 20 years. We shuffled past a decorative gong, the numerous performance posters, the requisite flower displays, to hand over our tickets.

They spoke to us in Chinese. Because obviously, one would never go to the opera if one didn’t speak Chinese. I know how to count, say my address, order a meal and say “please hold the hand rail”, so that’s good enough, right? Whoops. We took our programs, the story guide that was more of a novel, the advertisements for the future productions, and a pamphlet containing interviews with the stars and producers. All in Chinese.

We were directed to our seats, row Q. I was next to a woman with a handbag the size of a suitcase: opera glasses, snacks, water, and possibly a blanket, a tent and a fluffy dog. The people who filed into the seats behind us smelled faintly of Bengay. There were 5 people in my general vicinity with opera glasses and food. I haven’t seen that many binoculars at once ever, even at a stargazing party.

There was a brief (humorous, other people laughed at presumed jokes) announcement, probably about the format (intermission, two halves, please turn off phones, enjoy the comedy, I was guessing) and then the overture: loud off-key gong over a pleasant flute, pleasant countryside imagery was projected on a screen in-front of the curtain.

Then the curtains opened and the entire cast paraded across the stage.

The first proper character appeared soon after–a woman and her handmaid–to much applause from the audience. They flitted around the lovely set (a bridge over a stream with rocks strewn about and a couple willow trees) in their extensive costumes with sleeves that trailed to the floor, decorated jeweled hair and opera make-up. Their voices warbled between quarter tones, elongated phrases coming from the nasal cavity with minute changes between syllables and words. Vertical Chinese subtitles flashed in red l.e.d. on displays either side of the stage. The handmaid departed, and two wandering male characters paraded into the scene as the woman was partially obscured on the bridge: the romantic intrigue begins.

What followed was a story of family ties, romance, comedic relief from the servant characters (they had a meowing secret signal), threats from mysterious powerful princes, and missed connections in a park. There were even fight scenes: spinning and ducking meters from the opponent, at least it got the point across.

One of my favorite things about the show was the costuming. Characters changed outfits as often as possible, different hair and styling showed status and purpose. The best thing was the sleeves: every high-status character had sleeves that could extend to the floor. They would furl them out dramatically, flick them up to gather them back, fold them over their arm to show their hands, fling them out again to cover themselves. I have absolutely no idea why, but it lent an added sense of needless tradition that really characterized the ticks of any aristocratic culture.

The sets were gorgeous and the costumes fabulous and the story seemed universal. There was even a musical section I enjoyed: a duet between the lyre and the flute of the main couple. I discovered that to show tension or excitement the score relied on the gong: more gong=more tension. We concluded they were informing us of what we should be feeling, rather than making us feel it. None of the trembling tremolo to make us nervous, nor soaring strings to make us feel potential joy, nor deep woodwinds to make us feel sorrow: it was the gong and the lyre exchanging pleasantries for battle marches. This musicality is fascinating if you’re interested in it or love the art form, but if you’re not that into classical music theory it may become grating. With a bit of a classical music background, the score can be incredibly interesting and even enjoyable!

It did, however, become slightly grating. We had provisions for that eventuality: There is a 7 Eleven across the street and we had flasks from a distant Christmas party. Large bags full of snacks and drinks are the way to go.

I was much more excited than anyone else–first time in Chinese opera, I’m fascinated by the music and the aesthetic–but my cohort was less than thrilled. After each 30 minute scene they had a minute of set change, when viewers would take the opportunity to use the facilities and chat to each other about the spectacle; we would debate sneaking out when no one would notice.

Then after 2 hours and 3 sets, it was intermission. It was 10 o’clock on a Wednesday, we’d seen the exposition and the rising action and we bustled out the door with a crowd. They gave us return slips to get back in: they were never used.  The show was going to continue for another 90 minutes.

Overall I was thrilled with the experience. The facial expressions, the costumes, the musicality and artistry combined to create a cultural experience I wouldn’t trade. The packed house in the theater lets me know I can always go back. I will definitely take visitors who are interested in theater or music if I can, letting them know that it is more of an interesting experience and if they want to leave early that is okay. When I went I realized my mother would love it, as she is an actor herself. She came to visit, and we went again, and managed to stay for 3 hours, and she adored the experience.

It is an acquired taste that everyone should try once. Worst case scenario: you have a good story and can confidently tell others they might not like it but they should go too.

My recommendations:

  • Take a large bag with:
    • a flask of your choice.
    • snacks, if you’re in it for the long haul.
    • opera glasses, I love a good excuse for new eyewear.
    • gum or mints: overpower the Bengay and Tigerbalm!
  • Go casual: jeans and a t-shirt are perfectly acceptable.
  • Know the language, though I enjoyed it, it might be easier to follow the story if you can actually understand what they say.
  • Have an escape plan and talk to your friends about what they expect.
  • Turn off your phone, the signal was negligible in the theater.
  • Buy tickets a few weeks in advance, The Sunbeam theater gets full. Go to cityline.com  for show times and tickets.
  • Ask for recommendations for a show from someone who’s a fan; they’ll send you to a good one.
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2 thoughts on “Chinese Opera at the Sunbeam Theater

Add yours

  1. This is a marvelous blog on an experience that immerses one into the traditional Cantonese culture. The History museum in Kowloon has an interesting exhibit on Cantonese Opera that adds to the understanding of the culture as well. I might go there first, then attend an Opera if possible. I just wish they would provide and English translation at the Opera and on the CDs which you can buy in the museum gift shop.

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