The Other New York City Opera

Chinese Traditions Survive a Transplant

It's the Ming dynasty, wartime. A young scholar in a tasseled hat, platform boots, and an embroidered robe searches the Chinese countryside for his sister. He finds, instead, a lost woman with the same name who asks for an escort to safety. Thunder claps, it starts to pour—but the scholar has an umbrella. They take shelter under it, sway in the fierce winds, begin singing. By the time the storm is over, they've fallen in love. Birds chirp, the skies clear, and a stage manager snaps a new tape into the video camera recording the scene. Seven musicians who've synthesized the storm get notes from the director.

The rain-drenched hills roll in a gray room on Canal Street—the Chung Ying Cantonese Opera Association, one of a growing number of Chinatown spaces dedicated to producing Chinese opera and preparing for New Year celebrations beginning February 16. It's fitted with an old couch, a microwave, minifridge, and carpeted walls to insulate neighboring offices from the sound. The lovers, David and Joyce Moy, commute from Westchester to rehearse with a dozen other amateur singers and musicians.

New York's network of such clubs features opera from Fujian, Taiwan, Beijing, and, most commonly in Chinatown, Guangdong. Amateurs have long run them, rehearsing after work and on Sundays. But in recent years, many professional opera performers with years of rigorous training in China have emigrated to New York, giving lessons and revitalizing the clubs. "They're really flourishing right now," says Anna Wu, who heads the Kunqu Society, busy staging its own version of The Peony Pavilion (a professional production of which, scheduled for Lincoln Center last summer, was derailed at the last moment by Shanghai's Bureau of Culture).

Happy Year of the Rabbit! Sam Yau, of the Cantonese opera club Yen Wor Group, prepares for a performance.
Happy Year of the Rabbit! Sam Yau, of the Cantonese opera club Yen Wor Group, prepares for a performance.

These local operas are wonderful bits of pageantry. Ornately dressed soldiers walk in time to the beat of the wood block, while a haughty general may stride in on his horse—a fringed walking stick. Story lines, extraordinarily complicated, draw on an arsenal of stock figures including despotic rulers, ill-fated couples, the clown, the refined lady, and, most popularly, the painted-face characters, usually gods. These last amount to the superheroes of the opera stage: one is Guan Gong, a patron of the arts and renowned hothead who hates dishonesty and frequently kills any liars, crooks, or schemers who cross his dangerous, if just, path.

No one can say for sure how many opera clubs exist in New York—disgruntled performers often leave older clubs to start their own—but Mon Dot Chan, 70, has led one of the oldest, the Cantonese Kyew Ching Musical Association, since its founding in 1956. Chan gave the club its now incongruous name, "Overseas Youth." In the basement space, filled with photographs, mildewed costumes, and steamer trunks, he organizes rehearsals, keeps track of dues, and occasionally sits to play the yangqin, a hammered dulcimer. A cranky perfectionist, Chan is always remaking the club—one year he was smitten with the voice of a young woman from Malaysia and declared her a star. A few seasons later he enlisted several younger middle-class couples to join Kyew Ching. But attracting additional members gets more difficult as the émigré professionals form new clubs and schools.

Only five years old, the Fu Kai Cantonese Opera Training School boasts a major Cantonese performer, Pin Chao Luo, as its principal instructor. Still able to play all roles, Luo, 86, was a celebrated stage and film actor in Hong Kong in the '30s before returning to mainland China, where he spent eight years in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution—forbidden to sing. Eventually, he became art director of the Institute of Cantonese Opera in Guangdong, emigrating to New York in 1989.

In his tiny basement apartment on Elizabeth Street, Luo has carefully inked poems onto large sheets of paper that cover the walls. Sitting at his kitchen table as students drop by, he considers the future of Cantonese opera. "Audiences have so many other forms of entertainment now," he says, leafing through old movie stills. "It's hard training for a risky future."

Younger opera professionals, celebrities in Shanghai who have recently emigrated to New York, prove Luo correct. Xiaoming Shen supports himself working in a photo shop; Kunqu artists Jiehua Shi and Qinglin Cai own a video store and run a delivery service. They continue to perform and give workshops—Shi just finished touring with Peter Sellars's hybrid production of The Peony Pavilion, which combines European theatrical styles with Kunqu and Peking opera.

At the Kunqu Society in Flushing one Sunday afternoon, Cai and Zhiping Chen rehearse an opera about Lu Zhishen, a bandit-turned-monk who hates the Spartan life of the monastery and decides to get drunk. Chen, who plays the errant monk, trained for years in Shanghai and emigrated after Tiananmen Square. A restaurant worker for eight years in California, he clerked in a liquor store here but is now unemployed. Finishing his performance, he begins a complicated series of movements known as Luhan boxing—part martial arts, part tai chi. At five, when the other performers must return to their "day jobs," Chen, still in character as the drunken monk, heads back to the monastery.

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