His life’s work: William Lau is spreading the good word about Peking Opera

William Lau all dressed up with somewhere to go. Photo: Simona Gagliostro

In Mandarin it is called Jingju. In English it is Peking Opera, or if you prefer, Beijing Opera.

But whatever you call it, for William Lau, it is the passion of a lifetime.

“Jingju is the opera of the capital,” Lau, who is a program officer. He uses Peking Opera, by the way, because he believes it has more impact when spoken.

Peking Opera is actually not that old. It dates back about 200 years, Lau says. There are many other forms of opera in China that pre-date it. In fact it is a Qing dynasty invention.

“What happened,” Lau says, “was an emperor had an 80th birthday and he invited an opera troupe to go to Beijing to perform. After the party he retained them in the capital and they developed this fusion of various opera forms now called Peking Opera.” If you are intrigued you can experience a performance on Saturday afternoon at Arts Court.

The art form is not a museum piece however. It has evolved over the years. There is a lot of repertoire, Lau says. In the 20th century there were new works created, including some revolutionary operas during the Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

“Nowadays we have various contemporary themes and we use a modern way of interpreting these themes,” Lau says. But some things are unchanged.

These are the roles that are portrayed. There are four major ones: Sheng which is the lead male role; Dan, which is the female role; Jing which is a painted face male role and Chou which is another painted face male role.

Once you assume a certain role in Peking Opera, you will always do that role, Lau says. He portrays a young female role and has since he started learning about the form at the University of Hawaii in 1990.

“I was born in Hong Kong. I speak more Cantonese than Mandarin,” Lau says. “My grandparents, from my mother’s side, are from Shanghai so they liked Shanghainese Opera and they liked Peking Opera, so as a kid I heard those things. In Hong Kong we had Cantonese Opera.

“One time I was in Toronto on a job with a Peking Opera troupe and I was helping out with translation and interpretation and helping the tour guide with them. I got to watch them for a whole month. After that, when I went to the University of Hawaii, they had training there. I started with the class.”

He also went to China subsequently to study with a master.

“After that there was no return.”

Lau says he was initially captivated by the beauty of the makeup and the costumes and the interesting stories.

“But when I got into it, it also became about learning about my heritage, my culture and its long tradition,” he said.

“I grew up in Canada. Through Peking Opera I learned historical characters and stories. I learned about the kind of moral behaviour that is expected of a Chinese kid. I also got to switch gender on stage. That was another big challenge. All this gender role reversal is very interesting,” he said.

He concentrated on young female roles, he says, in part because his teacher was a disciple of a famous opera star named Mei Lanfang, who always played  female roles.

He also specialized in these roles because of his voice and his physical appearance. Also when he was a child he studied ballet and Chinese dance. And he still does portray the young female roles even though he is no longer a “spring chicken.”

A lot of Asian societies, Lau said, including Japan, China and even Indonesia, have a tradition of men playing women and women playing men on stage. He says it is more about the conventions of the art form than a matter of identity.

Today when Canadian audiences sit and watch an opera, they clap at the end but they are relatively silent throughout, save for the odd “Bravo!” But an audience for Peking Opera is animated and involved. They boo and hiss. They will often shout Hao a sentiment similar to Bravo, Lau says.

“The gestures of the actors are stylized and they are completed in the imaginations of the audience members.” The audience is critical to the success of the performance. “If the audience doesn’t want to enter your world, it doesn’t work. When they do they complete the world.”

He wishes he could do Peking Opera full time “but there is no demand for it.” Almost every single production he does is self-produced.

He does involve Canadian actors speaking English in the shows he produces, to spread the news about the art form and make it more accessible.

Despite the modern lack of support, forms of Chinese opera have been seen in Canada since the 19th century when men came to the country to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

This weekend Lau is hosting a performance featuring Lau and the AiYue Choir from Ottawa, Xu Fengze, of Toronto’s Little Pear Garden Dance Company and Vancouver performer Li Xiaofu. There will be a performance on an ancient Chinese instrument called a Guzheng by Unissia Huang. On Friday there will be a display of opera photographs by Simona Gagliostro and on Sunday Lau will conduct a workshop.

The show will present three different styles of opera and will include a musical performance. In the first piece, which takes place in the ocean, lau says he will be fighting with a giant clam. In the second, “I will be playing a princess chasing a runaway husband to bring him home.”

The work helps him find a balance in his life.

“These interests carry me and continue my search for excellence.

“You will never achieve perfection, but the process is really the most important part,” he says. “There is always some regret because it’s never a perfect performance. You want to do better the next time.”

The Autumn Melody Collective presents Close Encounter with the Peking Opera: A Three Part Experience
Where: Arts Court, 2 Daly Ave.
When: April 13, Photo exhibit from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; April 14, Performance at 3 p.m.; April 15, Workshop from 2 to 4 p.m.
Tickets and information: artscourt.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.