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Resplendent Beauty: On Cantonese Opera Repertoire and Costumes Exhibition

Jointly presented by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Lee Shau Kee Library, Shaw Auditorium Unit, Center for the Arts and Media Technology and Publishing Center


Cantonese opera is a unique genre of performing art in the Lingnan area in southern China. It applies singing, acting, recitation and martial arts to a large variety of drama plots, and combines stage design, costume design and music accompaniment to become a folk art in the traditional society. The earliest known records of performances by Cantonese opera troupes in Hong Kong can be traced back to the mid-19th century, and the relatively liberal social atmosphere and affluent material life favored a rapid development in post-war Hong Kong. In 2009, in recognition of its historical significance and cultural value, Cantonese opera was inscribed onto UNESCO’s Representative List of World Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Despite its high cultural status, Cantonese opera is struggling to maintain a sustainable development, a challenge posed by the rapid expansion of entertainment businesses in past decades. HKUST Center for the Arts and the Library co-organize the exhibition as a major event of HKUST Arts Festival 2023. It echoes the theme of AF2023, Arts in Multicultural Hong Kong, to present and hopefully to revive this precious cultural heritage of Hong Kong.

The exhibition focuses on four well-known Cantonese operas, namely, The Butterfly Lovers and Muk Gwai-ying Routing Hongzhou by Yip Shiu-tak, The Floral Princess by Tong Dik-sang and The Priceless Jade by Lee Siu-wan, selected based on the diversity of historical backgrounds and themes, to reflect the wide spectrum of the art form. In the creative process of the librettos, the librettists had to arrange traditional tunes, lyrics and dialogues according to the contents and narrative structure of the drama. In addition to having a profound knowledge of Chinese literature and outstanding writing skills, they had to be familiar with performing routines and stage operation, setting out in the plays details such as how actors appear on the stage, timing for costume change and change of scenes, to name just a few.

The four operas are not only renowned for the excellent screenwriting and portrayal of characters, their stage sets and costume designs are also artworks in their own right. The main characters on display in their respective stage sets here are selected to feature royalties, dignitaries, battle commandants, and last but not least, ordinary people, to illustrate the four major types of Cantonese opera outfits, namely, python ceremonial robes, armor, gowns with a sloping collar (casual clothing for ordinary people) and gowns with a vertical collar (casual clothing for dignitaries), together with their matching headgears. Visitors will discover the beauty of these artefacts and interact with multimedia presentations in the Library and the foyer of Shaw Auditorium.

In its development over a long period of time, Cantonese opera has evolved into a multitudinous performing art form with unique formats of expression. Through presenting the fundamentals of Cantonese opera, this exhibition hopes to inspire the public to explore further opportunities to appreciate this precious art.