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The Cradle of Stars

Angel Leung of School of Chinese Opera and Petite Chan of School of Music

1 Sep 2021

"Without the participation of young people, any form of performing arts won't have a bright future," muses Pai Hsien-yung on the revitalisation of Kun opera. Art preservation and transmission is always an arduous project.  A project of hope.


The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts has nurtured countless talent over the past 37 years. The six schools – Chinese Opera, Dance, Drama, Film and Television, Music, and Theatre and Entertainment Arts – have produced scores of young people who have kept the flames of art and culture burning ever so brightly. Current students Angel Leung Sum-yee of the School of Chinese Opera and Petite Chan Tsz-shun of the School of Music may have different interests, but their visions are the same: to apply what they have learnt and to pass on the torch.


Angel Leung, a student in the Advanced Diploma Programme for Cantonese Opera, joined a children's Cantonese opera troupe at the age of 10. She has subsequently been under the tutelage of well-known opera artists such as Wan Fei-yin, Lui Hung-kwong and Flora Cheung; she also learnt to sing under Lam Kam-tong.


In Hong Kong, secondary school students are required to take a sport or an art subject outside the classroom. So for a while, Angel saw Cantonese opera as little more than an extracurricular activity, one that would, she jokes, help her do better on the DSE Chinese language exam. A high academic achiever, Angel was accepted into The University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law. While as a law student, she began to take performance jobs, and for a number of years she shuttled regularly between the stage and the court.


"One time while I was a legal intern, I had a part in an opera performance for the gods on an outlying island," she recalls. "My job left me with very little extra time, but I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to perform. So I went on stage at night, and the next morning, took the earliest sailing for the office, got changed quickly and headed to court. After work, I had a quick meal before hopping on the island-bound ferry for the performance again." Cantonese opera and law may be worlds apart, but Angel believes they offer a good balance of "sense and sensibility."


On the job, Angel meets all types of clients and comes across an assortment of weird and wonderful cases. This broadens her perspective and gives her a deeper understanding of operatic scripts, allowing her to play characters who are advanced in years. "I like to observe clients," she explains. "When they tell me their stories, I scrutinise their expressions and responses. Studying these details closely has helped my acting tremendously."


Arming Herself for the Future


Angel strives for balance, looking to build both her career and her dreams simultaneously. Last year, she enrolled in the Academy's Advanced Diploma in Cantonese Opera to refine her aptitude. "I have been performing Cantonese opera formally for a period of time," she notes. "I want to further myself artistically while I still have the energy, so the audience won't think, 'Oh, she only has a couple of tricks up her sleeve.' I enrolled at the Academy in the hope of fortifying my foundation, improving my singing skills, and stepping up my approach to scripts. It would give me the self-confidence to land more performances."


After a year on campus, Angel thinks she has made great strides. "Opera troupes usually have limited resources, so rehearsals may be few and far between," she says. "If you want to learn from the masters, you can only do so surreptitiously off-stage. Otherwise you simply learn from your own mistakes. But here, you acquire skills step by step, from the basics. Every rehearsal is videotaped for review. Mistakes rarely happen during actual performances because all the happening has already taken place at rehearsals, and the problems have already been solved."


The School of Chinese Opera's highlight performance Gongs and Drums gives students a chance to go on stage every semester. In her first semester, Angel performed in Divine Maiden Strewing Flowers. She was tutored by Ying Kam-sha, a senior lecturer at the Academy who is also a winner of the prestigious Plum Blossom Award, the highest theatrical prize in the Mainland. The students were divided into two groups, taking turns playing the goddess and the green-leaf fairy. They rehearsed day and night, and coordinated with each other to play the two roles in turn. The process became a wonderful exercise in team spirit.


In recent years, the government has increased financial support for Hong Kong's arts groups, funding artists to travel outside the city for performances and exhibitions. As a relative newcomer to Cantonese opera, Angel looks forward to exchanges with actors and audiences from different spots around the globe. "Artists require fresh stimuli," she explains. "Venturing out of one's comfort zone and learning about the tastes of different audiences allows us to reinvent ourselves, and in doing so, to improve the work and our mastery. I also hope to perform alongside actors from different troupes and experience the sparks of collaboration first-hand, while improving my own artistic aptitude."


First-Ever – A concert just for Harps


Petite Chan, who has just finished her four-year undergraduate studies, will become the Academy's first Master of Music student to major in harp in the new academic year. The sublime and elegant harp is often regarded as the instrument of angels, but it is quite tough to master.


"The harp is a complex instrument that requires the use of both hands and feet," Petite says. "Learners need to spend a huge amount of time practising and studying. You can get rusty even if you skip a day of practice." Petite began taking harp lessons at the age of 7. She almost quit in middle school, but things changed after she joined the school orchestra. Through contests, she received affirmation of her talent and grew to love the instrument so much that she decided to make music her career.


After graduating from secondary school, Petite enrolled in the School of Music of the Academy. "Compared to the music programmes of other universities, the Academy offers many more performance opportunities," she says. "Whether orchestral or solo, HKAPA students enjoy a lot of freedom." Performances both small and large have helped the shy Petite to open up and build her confidence.


In July this year, Petite and three students initiated a harp concert which included harp quartets – the first ever organised by the School of Music. "The School gave us a lot of assistance, including venue arrangement, promotion, administrative work, and live stream technical support," Petite notes. "The concert went very smoothly." The four students have a pact to continue throwing special concerts. The aim is to show more people the various facets of harp music.


Petite is currently preparing for a concert with the Academy Symphony Orchestra. She is invited to perform the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera, an Argentinian composer. "The harp is often seen as a delicate instrument," she explains.


"This composer, however, breaks boundaries, creating rhythmic works that subvert the instrument's conventional image." Known for his innovative music, Ginastera fuses elements of traditional Argentine folk music with modern forms. "I incorporate percussive elements into my performance, such as hitting the soundboard with my palm and plucking certain phrases with my fingernails to produce different effects. The harp can be an explosive and rhythmic instrument. I want more people to see this other side of it."


Teaching and Performing Simultaneously


Petite studied under famous harpist Dan Yu, an affable, genial, and highly encouraging teacher. "My teacher is easygoing, and gives me a lot of great advice," Petite says. "When I encounter complicated phrases, we discuss them. She respects my views, even if they're different from hers, and goes along with my decisions."


Thanks to Dan's influence, Petite is passionate about teaching; she intends to drive her career in the direction of education and performance. "More and more children want to learn the harp," she says. "I will try to focus on teaching and letting more people understand this non-mainstream instrument."


Petite points out that children can learn from the age of 4 or 5. However, the teaching of music theory for younger students takes more time, requiring the instructor to plan easy-to-understand lessons and to explain points slowly to young ears. Teaching children also requires a lot of patience.


"There's no particular requirement for learning," Petite says. "Hard work is crucial. Not being afraid of the pain is essential. We pluck the strings with our fingers, so calluses and blisters are a common occurrence. But you get used to it." Petite may make it sound easy, but she has put in years of hard work to play as well as she does.


Looking ahead, mild-mannered Petite has set herself clear goals. "I was born and raised in Hong Kong, so I hope to start by accumulating experience and building my network here in preparation for performing with an orchestra," she says. "There are plenty of opportunities in Hong Kong, with an increasing number of new music groups and potential learners of the instrument. It's an excellent opportunity to promote harp music."


The article was published in the September 2021 issue of Academy NewsClick here to read the original story.)


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