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Chinese opera's Paper Crane

Dancers, singers and a live band bring this musical to life.

Publication Date : 10-09-2012


From the duo that brought Malaysia the award-winning Broken Bridges in 2006 comes a tale that brings the Malaysians back to the heyday of Cantonese opera in 1970s Malaysia. Produced by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat, and with music and lyrics by Lim Chuang Yik and Teng Ky-Gan, respectively, Paper Crane charts the rise of an aspiring opera singer. Can a lowly stagehand make it big, or is he just building lofty castles in the air?

“Cantonese opera used to be big. The stars were worthy of mass adulation, even receiving money bouquets and jewellery. The musical should give a glimpse of these days, where the star of the opera could afford to strut around like a prima donna,” says Lim.

After much research that included watching hours of Chinese opera videos and an interview with a Cantonese opera practitioner, the two guys put their heads together and came up with the first of many drafts of dialogue and lyrics.

Lim explains, “Our biggest challenge in musical writing has always been this – how to get the story right, the characters, the plots, and more importantly, the heart.”

But once that was settled – and it took a few months – Teng got cracking on the script. After the lyrics were done, both composer and lyricist worked out the tone, structure, reference and purpose of each song, and then Lim composed the music.

“In this kooky head of mine, I always picture people bursting out in song. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in real life. It’s easy to compose cliched Chinese-sounding music, we call it the pentatonic scale where only five notes are used. You can just plonk the black keys on the piano and get a decent Chinese-sounding piece. My main challenge was to rise above this cliche and deliver something deeper and more complex,” says Lim, of this production that boasts a seven-member principal cast, 17-member singing and dancing ensemble and a seven-piece live band.

If a song strikes him as sounding “predictably Chinese”, he insists on reworking it.

Describing the music as “Broadway-style, with a Chinese slant”, he shares that an important consideration is identifying the main purpose of the song.

“Is it meant to reveal an important back story? Is it a glittery dance piece? Is it to develop a character further? I place emphasis on certain songs, of course – the torch song must blaze into an inferno, the regretful song much draw a tear, the finger-snapping song must, well, get fingers snapping! We continue to build on them; the songs are considered work-in-progress until it reaches (director) Joe (Hasham),” he says.

Tweaks were most certainly present. Although the entire play was originally written in English, Hasham says he decided, after careful consideration, to have it performed in both English and Cantonese.

“I must admit that it was not, initially, a popular decision as some thought it should remain in English. My argument was that we are dealing with Cantonese opera as the premise of the story so, to my thinking, it made sense to speak the language of the performers of the day,” explains Hasham.

With 15 original songs (23. including reprises), it was no easy task to translate part of the dialogue and songs into Cantonese, particularly as it had to not only retain the original meaning and context, but also accurately capture the spoken language style of the day.

“We had two very dedicated people, Phung Tuck Nam and Ooi Kee How, to work on translating dialogue and lyrics. The result is is a mixture of colloquial Cantonese, formal Cantonese and Malaysian English. The audience can expect a great story, wonderful music and songs, a few tears and much joy,” says Hasham.

Despite doing extensive research before getting down to writing, Teng points out that a hefty dose of imagination is required to come up with the lyrics as he needs to visualise the scene in his head before writing it.

“There is not much dialogue that is sung. The format is traditional – dialogue, song, dialogue ... and some dance here and there. One of the biggest questions Chuang Yik and I ask ourselves when writing is: Why do we need a song here? Only when we can answer this convincingly, do we put a song in,” says Teng.

Lim went through many poignant moments of discovery during the course of working on this production. Growing up oblivious to the popularity of Cantonese opera, he often dismissed it as “the chang chang chang show”.

“Speaking to an actual Cantonese opera performer dispelled my very immature and naive perceptions. We were able to draw on her actual experience, from training sessions to backstage intrigues. It is sad when one realises that beyond the loss of an art, we are also losing something more intangible, a forgotten way of life and community, a culture,” he says.

One issue during the writing process was deciding how much of the historical and cultural aspects of Chinese opera to incorporate into the musical.

“We didn’t want to sound preachy and make the show like an educational documentary. It’s not easy to balance this,” says Teng.

Although the musical is set largely in the 1970s, which coincided with the height and subsequent fall of live Cantonese opera performances in Malaysia, Lim says that its themes are universal: “It deals with ambition, it deals with family, it deals with self-delusion.”

“It is still relevant today because ambition is something all of us have, regardless of the era we live in.

“I hope that people who knew nothing about Chinese opera – like us, when we first started working on this – would take the initiative to learn more about this wonderful art after coming for the musical,” says Teng.

Lim concludes, “More than anything, I hope that people would be able to say, "That was a great musical" without the qualifier "for a local production".”


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