Cantonese opera group brings tradition to Nova Scotia

Emotional performance aimed at establishing new audience in Halifax

4 min read
Cantonese opera singer Frances Wong
caption Frances Wong performs excerpts from "The Purple Hairpin" at Halifax Central Library on Jan. 28, 2024. Wong captures the despair of her character, who dreads the fate of the lover with whom she has lost contact.
Serra Hamilton

Silence fell inside a nearly-packed Paul O’Regan Hall at the Halifax Central Library on Jan. 28 as Cantonese opera performer Frances Wong began to sing.

Wong’s voice filled the theatre, conveying bitterness, resentment and relief as her gestures drew the crowd into the inner world of her character: a noblewoman who reunites with her long-lost lover. Tears rolled down Wong’s face as she stumbled into the arms of her fellow performer, Chak Lui Chan.

Cantonese opera is a new experience for many in the Halifax community. For others, it’s a part of their history and a touch of home they haven’t experienced in years.

The art form has spread to the Western world but it has yet to establish a permanent presence in Atlantic Canada.

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Cecile Kung, MC of “Cantonese Opera: A Performance,” said she was happy the show attracted people inside and outside of the Chinese community.

“The first thing is to get them interested,” Kung said in a pre-show interview with The Signal.

“I hope that after all four sessions, they will get to know a little bit about Cantonese opera, and they will be able to tell their friends, ’Oh! I’ve been to one of these shows, and they’re really great.’”

An excerpt from The Purple Hairpin, a Cantonese opera classic performed at Halifax Central Library.

Wong moved to Halifax in December 2022 following a career as a professional Cantonese opera singer in Hong Kong. She said she hopes a growing interest in the art form will allow her to settle permanently in Halifax while continuing to perform.

“We love the city very much,” said Wong. “If I settle down, I want to do something special here.”

Kung and Wong cofounded Fai@Studio, a Cantonese opera group, and Kung raved about her partner’s passion.

“She wants to keep practicing, keep performing, but she needs the audience to support it.”

Cantonese opera singer Frances Wong.
caption Frances Wong (R) and Chin Mei Law (L) performed excerpts from the Cantonese opera The Purple Hairpin on Jan. 28, 2024 at Halifax Central Library.
Serra Hamilton

Unlike Western opera, Cantonese opera is an integral part of religious rituals and local festivals and is often presented as an offering to local deities. The vocal art form is deeply ingrained in Chinese history.

A different brand of opera

At Halifax Central Library Wong performed excerpts from a well-known Cantonese opera, The Purple Hairpin.

Kung said the performance was moving for the local Chinese community.

“They have not heard this kind of performance, not seen this kind of performance for decades,” she said.

“A gentleman just told me he came to Halifax 56 years ago, and since then, he had not seen any live performances here. So he feels very touched that he would be able to see that again.”

Cantonese opera singer Frances Wong.
caption Frances Wong (L) and Chak Lui Chan (R) perform “Reunion of Sword and Hairpin” from The Purple Hairpin at Halifax Central Library on Jan. 28, 2024.

Attendees with no personal ties to Cantonese opera, including Kaneka Watkins-Jackson, said they too found purpose in the performance.

“A lot of times when you hear about opera, you only think of European opera,” she told The Signal. “My aunt sent me the link and said it might be nice to immerse (my daughter) in a new culture.”

Dalhousie student Phoenix Bradly studies Cantonese and Chinese opera but said books can’t replace a live performance.

“I thought this would be an incredible way to immerse myself in the culture rather than just read about it.”

Wong and Kung said they felt optimistic about the turnout.

“For us, this is perfect,” said Wong. “I want to introduce it to everybody who wants to know.

“Then we can spread this beautiful art form worldwide.”

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