Although the golden age of Cantonese opera has passed, there have been echoes of support from advocates seeking to preserve this art form. Besides preserving the memories and memorabilia, the efforts also require enthusiasts who are willing to put in the hours to train. Mdm Jessica Koo was one such aficionado.
Cantonese opera originated from China’s Guangdong Province, and for centuries it has been the entertainment of choice for the Cantonese-speaking population. Brought to Singapore by the droves of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, this almost-extinct art form is now preserved by a handful of local theatre troupes. Save for the occasional public event or religious festival, Cantonese opera has seen better days. Once upon a time, Cantonese opera performers enjoyed the status of film stars as we know them today. Not only were they admired for their acting skills, but also for their vocal range and pugilistic skills.
Now in her 50s, Jessica is a well-groomed businesswoman who runs an interior design business. Her voice possesses a melodious, soothing quality, which makes one curious how she would sound when she sings. Besides her captivating voice, Jessica’s actions were confident and precise.
Unsurprisingly, she started her career in Singapore Airlines as an air stewardess, and it appeared she is still very much a ‘Singapore Girl’. She left the airline industry after four years to start a family as she anticipated that the constant trips out of the country would make it difficult for her husband and her to raise their children together. Not one to sit around and idle, she found a job as a customer service supervisor at Metro which she hugely attributed to her training as an air stewardess.
Despite being in her 50s, Jessica continues to exude SQ charm in her mannerisms. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
She spent eight years there, and it was then that she had the opportunity to join a Cantonese opera troupe. She recalled, “As a little girl, I used to follow my grandma to watch wayang [Malay for ‘opera’]. I was fascinated by the costumes. All the bling-bling, you know, the colourful costumes.”
That experience left an indelible mark on her future pursuits. Hailing from a musically inclined family, Jessica loved singing. It was right after the birth of her second child that Jessica had a chance to meet someone from the Chinese Theatre Circle, and he encouraged her to join the Cantonese opera class after hearing her sing.
When she joined the class in the mid-’90s, Jessica was only in her 30s, and the youngest in a group made up of people twice her age. “The class was held every Monday. It was a 3-hour session and we paid only $80 for 3 months. It was really cheap because it was subsidised by the government to encourage people to learn more about the [Chinese opera] culture.” she said.
Unbeknownst to her back then, training was not straightforward and simple. As it was a traditional art form, the lyrics were written in traditional Chinese spanning three pages long. Unlike contemporary songs today which usually last about four minutes, each Cantonese song was 15 minutes long, and she had to memorise the lyrics. To get around the language barrier, Jessica would write the pronunciations in English.
The start of her course saw a month of intensive voice-training, accompanied by an erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string instrument. Line by line, she made progress weekly and spent a month mastering just one song. And at the end of that month, the whole orchestra would be present to accompany her singing. “All the wordings are so beautiful. So, as I got into it, I loved it more and more.”
One of the earlier performances during Jessica’s Cantonese opera days. Courtesy of Jessica Koo
Little did she know that she would leave an impression on Joanna Wong, artistic director of the Chinese Theatre Circle and doyenne of Singapore’s Cantonese opera scene. She was chosen to join Joanna’s troupe and soon Jessica was actively performing her craft.
Unlike the traditional theatrical renditions that most people expect of Cantonese opera, Jessica was performing stripped-down performances known as qingchang (清唱; light singing) . “So I was handpicked by them to perform with a male singing partner where he would sing the male verses and I’d sing the female verses. And we would be dressed in our own casual clothing,” she described.
Being part of the Chinese Theatre Circle meant Jessica had many opportunities to perform, but she lamented that the audience was made up mostly of people she knew, “You sell tickets to your own friends. So most of the time, your supporters are your own friends, and I performed at the Jubilee Hall*.”
She had to travel often for overseas performances and the intensive rehearsals took their toll on her family life and work. Besides her weekly training, she was performing up to three times a week. Between mothering her two young children and keeping retail working hours at Metro, Jessica found it a struggle to sustain her passion. After a few years, she reluctantly gave up performing.
She left her retail job thereafter and went into interior design, a job that keeps her on her toes. Despite being kept busy, her desire to sing remained. In around 2009 to 2010, an opportunity came for Jessica. Her cousin roped her in for a Cantonese opera performance for the Singapore Arts Festival, and she ended up performing for three nights along Clifford Pier.
Taken during the Singapore Arts Festival performance where she partnered local entertainer Abigail to perform along Clifford Pier. Courtesy of Jessica Koo
Now that her career is stable and her children are all grown up, Jessica is keen to re-enter the Cantonese opera scene. However, as her old troupe and mentor are no longer around, it’s hard to find a passage into performing again. Instead she now jams with local hobby bands, and performs English songs as a way to keep her passion for singing alive. And perhaps one day, we will have the good fortune of seeing Jessica’s grand return to the opera stage.
*The Jubilee Hall was a former Victorian-style theatre playhouse in Raffles Hotel.
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign