Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cantonese Opera With The GFX50S & X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy (Fuji GFX50S + 63mm)
It's been a while since I last posted here, but I was extraordinarily busy in researching the ancient art of Chinese opera; which I hope will become one of my long term documentary projects.

Following my earlier attendance of The Purple Hairpin performance at the Chinese Community Center's theater on NYC's Mott Street, I had the chance of befriending Ms. Yan Wu "Camille" Shuang (燕無雙) who kindly invited me to attend another Cantonese Opera show at the same venue. This time it consisted of a medley of scenes from various operas; some were performed in full costumed regalia, while others were performed in Western dress.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | GFX50S+63mm
Being invited by one of the stars of the show meant I could walk backstage while the actors were applying their makeup, and witness how the costumes are carefully prepared, ironed and worn. Although the lighting was atrocious and the space tight, I photographed two of the actors rehearsing their lines and movements within the narrow confines of a corridor leading to the stage before their being on.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 +16-55mm
While in the backstage changing room, I used the X-Pro2 fitted with the 16-55mm and chose spot metering on the white undergarments worn by the actors when applying their makeup. I was told that most experienced actors apply their own makeup rather than relying on an artist. It's a time-consuming task, and it has to be just right. 

The actors liberally use tape to get facelifts, using it to pull back the skin from their faces, enlarging their eyes and smooth out wrinkles. Sideburns, wigs and beards are all made of real hair, which allows them to be straightened with a clothes iron. Actors for female roles glue sideburns to slim down their faces' shape, and for their faces to appear more oval.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | GFX50s + 63 mm (crop)
As in previous shows, the audience were mostly middle-aged and elderly Chinese (and I was told were from Manhattan's Chinatown, and not from Queens or any outer boroughs).
I estimated that the gender mix was approximately 70% women; of which a handful were well-to-do middle aged business women. Naturally, they were seated in the front rows as was I (courtesy of my host). 

Not far from where I was seated, an intriguing character of undetermined gender and dressed in a man's white cotton suit with a white baseball cap was gawking at the audience, instead of watching the show. She scowled in my direction and nodded...I took that to be a greeting and nodded back. I was subsequently told that she had been a nurse in a prestigious Hong Kong hospital before immigrating to the United States, and that she personally knew all the famous Chinese Opera and movie actors of her era. She was also an amateur photographer who occasionally would photograph the participants at the Chinese Community Center.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 + 18-135mm (The Villain King)

I used my X-Pro2 and the XF 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 which, once again, did not let me down. This lens was my least favorite, and it was only added to my lenses because I needed a "long" zoom lens for a particular photo shoot during my 2014 Vietnam photo expedition. I thought I would never use it...but I did on every one of the Chinese Opera gigs, and it performed beyond my expectations. Most of my photographs were made using spot metering, and I set the exposure compensation at -2/3.

On the other side of my aisle sat a woman who frequently helped me understand what was going on the stage. During the climax of a particularly emotive moment (when the "mousang" hero is killed by the villain king), she was daubing her eyes, and said she couldn't help being emotional whenever she watched sad ending operas.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 + 18-135mm (The Hero Warrior-Mousang)
Despite my efforts to get the English titles of the Cantonese Operas performed during the show, I failed to get consistent replies. However, I've saved the program and will find a reliable translator. One needs stamina to cover the shows; I had to be there at 10:30 am and it ended at 6:30 pm.