Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts Presents Cantonese Opera Scenes Nov. 14

November 7, 2019

Erich Burnett

performer from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Photo credit: Courtesy Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

A cultural exchange highlighted by midday discussion on Chinese operatic music followed by an evening performance.


For years, Oberlin students have enjoyed opportunities for cultural exchange through winter-term excursions to Hong Kong.

This year, for the first time, a contingent from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts will pay a visit to Oberlin—and they will bring a key facet of their culture with them.

Performers from the Hong Kong Academy’s School of Chinese Opera will present an exclusive performance of Cantonese opera scenes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 14, in Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall.

Prior to the evening performance, representatives from the Hong Kong Academy will present “Music in Cantonese Opera: An Example in Connecting Music with Language.” It will be led by professor Leung Bo-Wah from the Education University of Hong Kong and dean Martin Lau from the Hong Kong Academy. The discussion takes place from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. in the Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space, in the lower level of the Hotel at Oberlin (10 E. College Street). A light lunch will be available beginning at noon.

Admission is free to both the afternoon discussion and evening performance.

The events are part of Oberlin’s Arts of Asia series, an autumn celebration that has also showcased music, performing arts, and visual arts of Japan, India, and Bali. Arts of Asia is sponsored in part by Oberlin College’s Departments of East Asian Studies, Theater, History, and Religion, as well as the conservatory and the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Developed more than 700 years ago, Cantonese opera is a traditional Chinese art form that illustrates stories from China’s history and lore through singing, acting, and music, with a heavy emphasis on choreography—especially in the form of martial arts and acrobatics. Cantonese opera enjoyed a surge in popularity in Hong Kong and southern China through the 1950s and 1960s, but later began to lose its cultural foothold to the burgeoning entertainment outlets of television and cinema.

The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ seven-year-old degree program in Cantonese opera is intended in part to preserve the ancient form for future generations—a mission made more urgent in part because of recent political unrest in Hong Kong.

The academy’s November 14 program at Oberlin will consist of excerpts from several operas. Among them are The Legend of the White Snake, which introduces operatic movements typical of the northern Chinese style, and The Jade Bracelet, in which performers convey emotion through mime-like acting techniques. A third excerpt, The Villain, the General, and the Heroic Beauty, exemplifies traditional Cantonese opera and features music sung in the ancient dialect of China’s Central Plains.

In addition to the excerpts, musicians will demonstrate various forms of percussion and melodic instruments that are frequently used in Cantonese opera.

Oberlin Professor of Music Education Jody Kerchner took part in a winter-term trip with Oberlin students to Hong Kong in January 2019. During that visit, the group experienced an unforgettable performance of Cantonese opera at the newly opened Xiqu Center in the West Kowloon arts district.

“It’s a full sensory buffet between these vibrant colors coming at you through costumes and makeup and scenery, as well as an incredible diversity of sounds,” says Kerchner.

“It is exciting that we have the opportunity to experience this ancient art form and that we can actually play a role in sustaining it. We talk a lot about environmental sustainability on this campus. This is cultural sustainability.”

The November 14 performance in Oberlin is part of a cultural exchange for the Hong Kong Academy’s student performers, who will learn about performing arts in America in addition to sharing their own artistry. Their visit is made possible with support from the Education University of Hong Kong, with which Kerchner has had a professional relationship since 2006.

In advance of the performance, students from Kerchner’s Community Engagement in the Schools course will visit children at Oberlin’s Prospect Elementary to prepare them for an in-school presentation made by performers from the Hong Kong Academy on November 13. Topics will include tonal colors of the traditional instruments used and cultural perspective pertaining to the use of costumes, martial arts, and other means of storytelling.

Community Engagement in the Schools is presented through the conservatory’s Division of Pedagogy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement. It is open to students in both the conservatory and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Learn more about the arts at Oberlin

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