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Roles and Librettos in Cantonese Opera

In the early stage, there were ten role types in Cantonese opera and each role required specialized training. By the 1920s and 1930s, these ten role types gradually evolved into six major roles, called the “Six Pillars”. They are: 1. Man mou sang (the principal male); 2. Siu sang (the supporting male); 3. Jing yan fa dan (the principal female); 4. Yee bong fad dan (the supporting female); 5. Chou sang (the comic role); and 6. Mou sang (the military role). Because of the overlaps in the roles, and as the storylines in Cantonese opera continue to evolve, there were in fact four major roles only, that is, 1. Man mou sang (the principal male); 2. Mou sang (the military role); 3. Chou sang (the comic role); and Fa dan (the female).

Early Cantonese opera librettos could be roughly divided into two main types: the first type was written in a comprehensive style; while “outline”, the other type of libretto, was a plot synopsis with no instructions on actions, spoken parts or lyrics at all. Artists had to improvise their stage performance from their own imagination. During late Qing and early Republic Period, as influenced by Western drama and opera, Cantonese opera librettos began to be arranged in acts and scenes. Its theatrical language had also become more colloquial. Because of the fierce competitions among different troupes, many new plays were written so as to attract more new audiences. This had given rise to professional playwrights and many plays of beauty and artistry were completed.

We are now going to explain the terms “patterned performance segments” and “opera outlines” briefly:

Patterned Performance Segments:

They are performance segments composed of specified percussion music, melodic accompaniments, acting, stage arrangement and plots. Usually, these segments are usually some highlighted episodes in traditional Cantonese opera and they were selected to train up the new artists and playwrights. For operas only with outlines, the playwrights would only list out the relevant segments and the artists could then perform accordingly. Some patterned performance segments were for all role types, called the “common performance segments”. They included the episodes like horse riding, having banquets and visiting dungeons; some other patterned performance segments were for particular role types, for example, the episodes of filing lawsuits and having private meetings in study rooms were for the role types in art operas (non-action operas). It is estimated that there are still about 200 patterned performance segments nowadays.

Cantonese Opera Outline

An opera outline was always posted at the back-stage before a performance was staged, serving as a reminder to the artists and the whole working crew. There was a unique format for the outline: under the title of the opera, there were a lot of grids, each representing one scene of the opera. Each grid had a simple description of the stage settings, plot development notes and music. The performers’ sequence was arranged according to when they came on the stage. During the earlier stage of the development of Cantonese opera, full scripts were unavailable. Artists had to improvise a large portion of their performance by making use of different patterned performance segments.

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