The Academy Chinese Opera Gongs and Drums – Pearl Bay premiered at the Academy to a packed audience early this year after months of preparation. A busy figure could be seen backstage tending to everything everywhere all at once, and urging students about to go on stage: "Stay calm. Take everything in stride. Do not fire on all cylinders out there. If you normally do three somersaults, attempting five will bring trouble."
These wise words come from the Opera's director and art director, Professor Ying Kam-sha, the Academy's Associate Professor (Performance - Chinese Opera) in the School of Chinese Opera. A veteran artist and recipient of the prestigious China Theatre Plum Blossom Award in 2009, Professor Ying has been nurturing Chinese opera talents in Hong Kong for years, with many of her students now the pillars of Hong Kong's Chinese opera community.
Professor Ying's story began in the Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe. She first familiarised herself with the art form at the age of 15, and went on to win numerous awards in her youth. In the 1980s, she settled down in Hong Kong. She joined the Academy as an instructor on the Chinese opera programme in 2007. Two years later, she reached a professional peak by winning the highest honour in the Chinese theatre performing arts, the Plum Blossom Award. Professor Ying has blossomed alongside the School of Chinese Opera, too. A woman used to wearing many hats - Associate Professor, Kunqu actress and Chinese opera adjudicator, among others - she has been promoting the revival of Kunqu for over five decades. Her efforts have birthed both a wondrous career and a wonderful life.
Professor Ying was born in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, to parents who were opera fans. As a child, she learnt to play the pípá; she also loved to sing and dance. Later she apprenticed at the Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe. Kunqu opera is an ancient and elegant form of Chinese opera known for its exquisite singing style, ethereal dance moves and beautiful diction. It enjoyed its heyday between the start of the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming dynasty to the end of the tenure of the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty. After that, it went into a decline, and almost met its demise during the Cultural Revolution.
The Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe resumed recruiting what it calls the Xiu generation of entrants in 1978. Professor Ying was among its most brilliant students. In 1982, she won the Outstanding Little Hundred Flowers Award with her role as Carp Fairy in The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea. In 1985, her role as Ma Ying in General Fubo landed her the First Prize for Young Performers.
Shortly after getting married, Professor Ying moved to Hong Kong to take care of her elderly parents-in-law. In Hong Kong, she became a Putonghua voice dubber at TVB, but Chinese opera was always on her mind. In her spare time, she founded a school of Kunqu opera. One day, a student informed her that the Academy was hiring opera teachers. Without a second thought, she quit her job of 18 years to join the Academy.
"The School of Chinese Opera was in the process of recruiting a Dean, and the Bachelor's and Diploma programmes hadn't yet been launched," she recalls. "I've come a long way with the School. It wasn't always an easy ride, but I feel tremendously honoured to have been a part of it."
In 2009, at age 45, she took advantage of her last year of eligibility to compete for the Plum Blossom Award. After months of practice, her toil paid off. Her three highlight pieces – Peony Pavilion: Strolling in the Garden, Butterfly Dream: Matchmaking, and Journey to the West: Borrowing the Magic Fan – won her the 24th Plum Blossom Award. The Biennial Award is considered the highest recognition for theatrical actors in the Mainland. "Winning has had a positive impact on me personally and professionally," she states. "It has brought me more attention, as well as more performance and collaboration opportunities - a real boost to my career as an artist."
Integration of the Essence of Traditional Chinese Opera
In 2013, the Academy launched the world's first accredited four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) Degree in Chinese Opera, and Professor Ying later became an Associate Professor teaching the performance of Chinese opera. She transplanted the Kunqu works she had performed into Cantonese opera, including The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, Princess of a Hundred Flowers, and The Peony Pavilion. She infused her teaching with her insights into mise-en-scène, stage walk, mood changes, rhythm and movement. "Kunqu actors pass their knowhow down from generation to generation," Professor Ying notes. "Apprentices learn every skill from their masters, not from books."
Although traditional opera has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years, the path to true inheritance and revival is long and challenging. Professor Ying was invited to be a final adjudicator for the 31st Plum Blossom Award. She finds the new generation of actors and spectators immensely inspiring.
"A small theatre accommodates some 200 spectators, and traditionally, all of them, from the perspective of an actor, are silver-haired," she jokes. "But when I was in Guangzhou recently, I noticed that opera films that adapt classical works such as Legend of the White Snake and Divine Maiden Scattering Flowers for the screen are very popular. They appeal to the young."
Professor Ying continues to perform annually in Hong Kong. On December 29, 2023, she will star in Remembering Mr. Koo Siu-sun – Kunqu Peony Opera Full-length in the Grand Theatre of the Xiqu Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District. The evening's programme features a compilation of 55 highlights. Artists from Hong Kong, the Mainland and Taiwan will star in the premiere, with Professor Ying in the lead alongside her students from the Academy, Wen Yuhang from Taiwan, and the Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe.
Leaving a Legacy
In today's fast-moving society, opera is often regarded as a form of old and niche entertainment. Hence, how to popularise the art form is something those in the field need to consider. Professor Ying has three main suggestions.
"First, there should be an emphasis on basic education," she says. "Many students became interested in Chinese opera when brought to a show as kids. An early fascination with the dazzling costumes and the sounds of the gongs and drums is the first step to achieving resonance."
After the flame is lit, the next step is to provide young actors with opportunities for performance and learning. "The four-year programme ends rather quickly," she notes. "What a waste if graduates have nowhere to perform! I hope the Hong Kong government can build more platforms to let young people engage in and experience opera, and gain the confidence to pass it down."
The last point is to encourage innovation on top of a base of respect for tradition. Professor Ying believes that younger generations should be permitted and motivated to innovate and experiment, so opera can continue to grow and rejuvenate. Take water sleeves, for example, the silk extensions to garment sleeves worn by actors. "The water sleeves of the past were very short," she points out. "They've become longer and longer, which is beautiful when the actor moves. Even beauty standards need to grow with the times."
Staged earlier this year, the Academy Chinese Opera Gongs and Drums – Pearl Bay was a work of art that gave equal importance to innovation and quality. Using respect for and protection of nature as its guiding creative principle, the work couples an allusion to the historical tale The Return of the Pearl with an in-depth portrait of an aquatic tribe's love of the homeland that their ancestors toiled to build.
Shortly after the interview, Professor Ying would fly to Taiwan to rehearse The Peony Pavilion. "I rehearse even on days off," she says with a laugh. "Granted, I've performed it many times, but practice makes perfect." Professor Ying has devoted half her life to Kunqu and half to teaching. She has done so not only for passion and ambition, but also for preserving an art and passing on the dream.