Spirited: Chinese opera performer Lim Choo Leong and his wife, Jenny Hee Yit Ooi, in a scene from the opera, Emperor Li's Tryst With Empress Xiao Zhou.
Chinese opera performers observe a gamut of rituals and superstitions to ensure a smooth show night after night.
Chinese opera performers are governed by taboos and superstitions. Rituals are a necessity to pay respect to patron opera deity Wah Kong Seen See (in Cantonese) and also beings from the nether world. Many performers observe these rituals for protection and a smooth performance.
During the Hungry Ghost Month, Chinese opera performances, and puppet and modern variety shows are staged in predominantly Chinese areas to entertain “the good brothers” (a respectful Cantonese term for spirits of the underworld). Businessmen, market stallholders and resident associations staged such performances in the hope that the appeased spirits would not bother them.
On the opening night, a Cantonese opera troupe has three customary performances prior to the actual show, said Lim Choo Leong, 32, a part-time Chinese opera performer. The first act depicts a birthday celebration by the Eight Immortals in heaven. It pays respect to temple deities, underworld spirits and ushers in good fortune.
However, the Chinese opera fraternity likes to draw attention to the second act, Six Kingdoms: Installation Of The Premier (Luk Gok Dai Fung Seung in Cantonese).
“In the olden days, the Installation act took up a whole night as it was about four hours. These days, the act is shortened to 45 or 90 minutes,” said Lim, an administrator of Sun Qing Yuet Cantonese Opera of Kuala Lumpur. “The Installation act shows off the troupe’s full cast and grand costumes. It’s also a courtesy greeting to the public and the spirits, and to implore the supernatural beings not to disturb the troupe.”
The imposing sight of the six generals bearing military flags on their backs was said to keep supernatural beings at bay. In the olden days, parents forbade their children from watching Chinese opera performances during the seventh lunar month, particularly the Installation act, said Yoong Poo Hiong, chairman of Yuet Wan Cantonese Opera, Kuala Lumpur.
“This was to protect the children from harm so that they would not unwittingly offend the spirit beings,” said Yoong.
All the opera troupe members pay homage to Wah Kong before each performance. They light up joss sticks and place them on both sides of the stage and back stage.
“The performers must not kick the wardrobe boxes and should take their own seats at the dressing table instead of sitting at someone else’s place to avoid any hitches during the performances. Breaking any taboos can result in a performer fumbling his lines, losing his voice or tripping on stage,” said Yoong.