The 52nd HK Arts Festival

A Gut-Busting Cantonese Opera Comedy about Saving the World

Text / Rebecca Lee

Highly acclaimed for its comedic productions, local Cantonese opera company Canto Op performs to full houses every Chinese New Year. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the company will stage the new comedy The Oracle at the 52nd Hong Kong Arts Festival, and Canto Op expects it to become its signature work.

Both founding members of Canto Op are respected figures in the world of Cantonese opera: Keith Lai Yiu-wai, who was apprenticed to famed male lead Jacky Man Chin-shui, has written a number of Cantonese opera scripts in recent years; while Wyborn Leung Wai-hong, trained since a young age by his father, eminent actor Leung Hon-wai, engages in both front- and back-stage roles. The duo founded Canto Op to perform their original works and expand the possibilities of Cantonese opera. This is the second collaboration between the company and the HKAF after Noah's Ark in 2021.

The title The Oracle alone leaves much room for imagination as it hints at messages received from the gods. "Were words from a god truly said by a god or just conceived by mortals? Could they be words from an ancient person revered as a god, so they eventually became seen as words from a god?" Lai ponders.

Written, directed and performed by the duo, The Oracle is an exploration of the essence of mythology rather than a story about any specific god. When a court historian (Lai) meets a shamaness (Leung), they start a heated debate about the meaning of mythology. Despite an order from the emperor to find an oracle and help save the world, the court historian believes only in history and regards mythology as mere superstition. Yet after a journey through the dreamland with the shamaness, he starts to query the authenticity of history written by humans—and wonders if it even matters.

"My grandma used to worship all the time. She would burn incense sticks during the last lunar month, on the anniversaries of her parents' deaths as well as on the birthdays of different deities to find peace of mind. It's difficult to achieve this state of mind nowadays," Leung explains. Chinese opera often draws inspiration from myths that gradually become folk beliefs that comfort people and help them get on with their lives. In fact, Chinese opera is full of religious rites, while ritual performances are regularly held in Hong Kong on deities' birthdays. "We want to study how such beliefs help mankind." This, perhaps, is precisely the value and meaning of mythology.

In their script, the two playwrights have created plenty of room for imaginations to run wild. "How does Yue Lao [the God of Marriage] manage the countless ties between mortals all by himself? He must have a heavier workload than the marriage registry! And after all these years, what does he think of conjugal ties between mortals?" In his willingness to think outside the box, Lai is showing the audience another side of the deities.

Leung points out that their works are not mere comedies.  "I hope this piece will give the audience an animated, colourful and cheerful feeling while providing food and room for thought."  Produced by a group of devoted Cantonese opera professionals, The Oracle promises a comedic Cantonese opera experience featuring a combination of witty lines, a variety of character styles and hilarious physical comedy.

Canto Op—The Oracle

Date: 16-17 Mar 2024

Venue: 沙田大會堂演奏廳

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/The_Oracle?