Opera for beginners

After some confusion over tickets I found my seat under the tin roof of the temporary Opera House. Row eight. Just left of centre. The air conditioning was entirely natural. A cool breeze from outside blew through the bamboo structure but the sheer density of bodies was enough to ensure I was going to get a free sauna with the performance.

The Chinese Opera was taking place in my local town, Sai Kung. This is the week the people celebrate the goddess Tin Hau. According to Wikipedia, Tin Hau “is the indigenous goddess of the sea who is said to protect fishermen and sailors, and is invoked as the patron saint of all Southern Chinese and East Asian persons“. As Sai Kung is indeed a town of fisherfolk originally this is a very important festival. The area has been an attractive base for Hong Kong’s western residents for many years. It is rural yet only half an hour by car from Central in good traffic. Many houses have gardens and the influx of expats has driven a thriving economy for locals and expats alike. From haute cuisine to hiking, Sai Kung has it all. Sad then that I saw so few Westerners in the Grand Old Opera House last night. A few wandered by, stood at the side and took a few pictures then moved on.

I faced two challenges. The first was the tight packing of the seating. At 6′ 4” tall (in my heyday)  I found it tough to squeeze myself into such a narrow row. And I had no idea what the story line was. There seemed to be scholars, warriors, bureaucrats and lovers, all in spectacular costumes. Yet how they interplayed I still do not understand. The first hour was deadly serious and then a character came on, who was evidently the light relief. Roars of laughter. Possibly at my ignorance. I could tell he was the funny man but I am afraid I didn’t get the jokes.

In front of me people wandered around freely, coming and going with a constant supply of food. As the lights went up once everybody seemed to be tucking into what looked like hot, black bean soup. Just the thing for a sultry summer night. A vendor appeared with boxes of what appeared to be bottles of eucalyptus oil, presumably to cure the swoons brought on by the heat. Covent Garden this was not.

When you first hear the music and singing of Chinese opera it seems discordant and rather cacophonous. If you settle down and spend a little time it is much like the Cantonese language. It starts to make sense. It is not “Die Zauberfloete” but then I doubt if the locals of Sai Kung would be blown away by the Queen of the Night either. I rather enjoy it and of course the real attraction is the costumes and make up that make the performances tailor made for photography.

I took 2 cameras and 3 lenses. I tried the M9 with a 90mm ‘cron and the 0.95 noctilux but for the onstage antics these were not right. The best kit was a very old F2.8 70-200mm Canon lens and my 1D mk IV body using ISO 800 and typically EV -1/3 to a full stop, depending on the lighting and the brightness of the costumes. White sleeves under bright lights blow the highlights at EV and needed a full stop off to hold.I was around 135mm focal length most of the time.

So here are a few shots from the opera. I hope you like them.

4 thoughts on “Opera for beginners

  1. The colours are rich and vibrant on my iMac… some great images, glad I cannot hear it!! I used to find listening to it in Beijing quite painful!

    PS – Please change the lime green BG colour!!

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