Love behind the greasepaint

Love behind the greasepaint

A Westerner's first date at the Chinese opera fired his passion for performing

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Lyle Rose (right), with his wife, Cynthia, performs chinese opera at Ap Lei Chau Community Hall.
Lyle Rose (right), with his wife, Cynthia, performs chinese opera at Ap Lei Chau Community Hall.
Photo: Warton Li/SCMP
New Yorker Lyle Rose watched his first Cantonese opera alongside his girlfriend at Ko Shan Theatre in To Kai Wan about 20 years ago.

"She asked if I would like to come to the opera with her," Rose recalls. "I said, 'Yes, as long as you sit next to me and explain to me what's going on'."

Rose, who works as a business management consultant, remembers that his jaw dropped when he first saw the opera's beautiful costumes, makeup - called greasepaint - wonderful acting and acrobatics, and unique setting.

He eventually married his Hong Kong-born girlfriend, Cynthia, and they moved back to his hometown. But she had an interest in performing Cantonese opera, so the performance art and marriage were intertwined.

In the US, Rose often heard Cynthia practising songs at home, but he felt no urge to sing along with her.

When they moved back to Hong Kong in 2009, Rose and his sons attended one of his wife's performances.

Her teacher, local opera singer Lynda Wan Ka-sing, saw them humming along with some made-up lyrics, so after the show, she asked Rose if he would like to take part, too. He says: "I said 'No', because I didn't speak Cantonese."

Later Rose decided to try singing Chinese opera. Wan now trains them both.

When it first appeared in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), Chinese opera was initially part folk music and part street show. The art evolved further during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and its popularity grew in the south, including Guangzhou.

Chinese opera was first sung in a Zhongyuan Yinyun, a standardised old form of Putonghua. But as the Qing dynasty gave way to the republic, the local elite - to spread the revolutionary message - translated the lyrics into Cantonese to make the opera more accessible to Guangzhou residents.

For a Westerner, practising Chinese opera means learning exotic plots and reciting them in an unfamiliar language.

Rose learns the melody by listening to his wife sing at home. But when it comes to the language, "speaking and singing in Chinese is definitely difficult", he says.

Rose recites the words using a romanised script, and develops his character by reading a translation of the plot. He also watches videos of other actors playing the same role.

The couple performed the much-loved Death of Princess Chang Ping at Ap Lei Chau Community Hall to an elderly crowd a few weeks ago. Many in the audience laughed aloud; others looked truly impressed.

Rose recalls his first time onstage, at the Sai Wan Ho Community Centre Theatre.

"At least no one threw tomatoes at me," he jokes. "They laughed and applauded."

Now Rose wants to bridge the cultural gap by translating Chinese opera's most famous plays into English to share his interest with other expatriates.

He also wants to learn to sing Anyu, another song from the play about Princess Chang Ping, for a romantic reason: it was this very song that the couple heard on their first date, 20years ago.

Lyle's next performance will be on October 4 at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point. The family are on Facebook as "The Rose Family Hong Kong".

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