New Traditionalists: Eliza Li

This article appeared in Baccarat’s March 2016 issue as part of ‘Back to the Future’, a photo profile on five young individuals and duos who are reinventing traditional arts for a modern audience. 

Art of Cantonese Opera association: ELIZA LI

Despite her unassuming demeanor it’s clear that Eliza Li loves performing, as she strikes a pose for our photographer. “I wanted to be an opera singer since I was in kindergarten,” says the 30-something later, not surprisingly considering her family history. Li’s grandfather was the prewar Cantonese opera composer Li Gam-chiu, and her parents performed in the same troupe back in the 1960s. “That was before they emigrated to the United States,” says Li as we meet at the new wing of Ko Shan Theatre, where she has just completed day two of a 10-day intensive performance class. “And then, it was just like any other immigrant story,” she adds, reflectively. After toiling away in a garment factory for a few years, Li’s father set up his own business, and it was around that time that Li was born. While many of her grandfather’s librettos were lost during World War Two, her father would recount tales of performing with eminent Cantonese opera actress Yam Kim-fai in Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower. Times changed, though, and her father, for want of a better life for her, opposed the idea of Li continuing down the same path.

After securing a bachelor’s degree in Chinese literature from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Li worked at online job site for a year before finally convincing her parents that Cantonese opera was the one thing she wanted to pursue.

Her first role was as Princess Changping in The Floral Princess, likely one of the most well known Cantonese operas penned by Tang Ti-sheng. “Oh yes, it was very intimidating. Bak Sheut-sin (the revered singer who made the role famous in the 1950s) was in the audience, which did nothing to help my nerves!” Did Bak give her any comments? “She told the media that I performed okay, but seriously, what could she have said? ‘She was horrid’?”

Soon after, the budding performer co-founded her own troupe, Art of Cantonese Opera Association, with her father. Li’s troupe operates differently from the others in that it puts on whatever productions tickle its fancy, as opposed to set pieces in which the founders are almost always cast in the main roles and the same singers perform in every show. “It’s quite a novel concept. Instead of limiting ourselves to a set talent pool, we have vastly different people working with us,” Li explains. “Rather than promoting myself, what I really want to do is to promote Cantonese opera.”

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Despite public initiatives, audience numbers are waning, with most performances attracting only an older demographic. “I used to question this myself but I think my perception has changed over the years. Cantonese opera isn’t something you can just force on anybody. It’s like golf in a way. Why do mostly those in their 40s, 50s or 60s play? Because only at that age could one afford the time and money,” explains Li. “It’s not Cantonese opera itself that is the problem, it’s a matter of time. I mean, a four-hour show is asking a lot out of young people’s time. The only thing we can do now is produce interesting pieces, with the hope that these will stay at the back of the mind of the younger crowd and that they will feel inclined to come back as they grow older.”

Li is pioneering a movement that could help Cantonese opera regain its appeal. Aside from translating librettos into colloquial English, Li and her contemporaries are also adapting Shakespearean plays like Hamlet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream – which, admittedly, boast more interesting plots and character arcs than the usual Cantonese opera. “Traditional scripts tell you what happens without going deeper into the minds of the characters. We need scripts that leave the audience room for imagination,” she says. De Ling and Empress Dowager Cixi, adapted from screenwriter Jiping He’s 2010 play by the same name, is one such script, bringing up contemporary themes including clashes between the older and younger generations, and Eastern and Western cultures.

Does Li’s father approve? After all, he was quite the moderniser in his day. “When my dad came back briefly in the late ’70s, he formed the Hong Kong Experimental Cantonese Opera Troupe and asked [performance artist] Frog King to design the backdrop for one of his operas!” Li says, smiling at the memory. “And he’s always saying that we need to keep the show under three hours as time is a factor driving younger people away. But then I think, people do go into theatres to watch lengthy movies, as long as they’re good!”

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