Opera In Manchester

The first opera group in Manchester was a Cantonese opera group, founded in Chinatown in the 1980s by Ann Law (an opera star from Hong Kong).  As well as organising and participating in performance, her group were involved in teaching opera, singing and performance to a number of different groups in and around Manchester.  In the 1990s a number of performers expanded away from this group to found the Manchester Chinese Opera Group, which performs very successful annual performances.  Ann Law continues to teach the traditional discipline of Chinese opera through “Ann’s Cultural Club” in the New Hong Kong restaurant and the Wai Yin Chinese Women Society in Manchester, as well as elsewhere in Britain.

“ There were not many performers when I came to England in 1977; there was only one Cantonese opera venue, based in London.  Loret Lee asked me to help out in Manchester in 1985. ”

~ Ann Law

The Manchester Chinese Opera Group is self-funded and rehearses weekly in Chinatown, in the basement of the Kwok Man restaurant.  They organise one performance a year, usually at the Royal Northern College of Music. The performance attracts huge audiences and is the largest Chinese opera performance in Europe.  Chinese operas are visual and audio feasts, with bright costumes and complex choreography.  An orchestra accompanies each performance using traditional Chinese instruments, twenty four in total.  

Chinese opera plays a very important part in Greater Manchester’s cultural activities, both past and present and its popularity is a testament to how important this tradition is within the cultural history of the Chinese community.


Opera in China emerged out of the traditional folk dances.  During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), great effort was made to preserve the folk dances and schools were established to teach them.  The formalisation of these dances, as well as the singing and storytelling that were already a part of many such dances, nurtured the beginning of what we would now call Chinese opera.  Evidence of a basic theatre has been found in from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), consisting of a square stage enclosed in railings.  One of the oldest and most influential formalised styles of opera still existing today is the Kunqu opera which dates back to the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).  During and after the Yuan Dynasty, opera became very popular in the royal courts; it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that it became fashionable with the rest of the population.

In China Today

Today the most active operas in China are the Peking Opera in the North and the Yue Opera in the Southern province of Guandong.  However, each region in the country has its own local opera, such as the Wu Opera in Shanghai or the Chuan Opera in Sichuan, whilst other types of performances with a strong local flavour exist, such as the Imitation Tang Dance of Xi’an in Shaanxi. The most popular opera among the predominantly Cantonese Chinese in the United Kingdom is the Yue opera.  Like the traditional folk dances, performance of Chinese opera requires great skill.  A performance not only requires the ability to sing, but also acrobatics, emotive storytelling, acting and martial arts, all in extremely extravagant costumes.  

Performance and Costumes

Most costume designs came from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE).  The extravagant embroidery, jewels and ornaments are dazzling, whilst the high court shoes increase the height of the performers and require great skill to move in. Costume also tells the audience about the characters of the cast and their status.  For example, the Emperor’s costume always incorporates dragons, the queen’s phoenixes and a princesses butterflies. Stiff armour is worn by those playing military officials, often with a tiger or dragon on the front and two great pheasant plumes on their head gear.  Headdresses indicate the social status of the character – the more elaborate the headdress, the higher the position of the character.  Similarly, different hats are worn by different characters.  A scholar or official, for example, will wear a black hat with two fins coming down to the sides; rectangular fins are worn by high officials; rounded fins denote a villain; long, thin fins are only worn by the highest ranking government officials.  The elongated sleeves emphasise conversation, for example, they are flicked when making a point or shaken when angry.

Face Painting

Painted masks were used in ritual Chinese dance long before opera was established.  Just as costume is used to aid storytelling, so is the make-up worn by the cast.  The colours and patterns follow a fixed tradition that indicates the character of the individuals.  A red face shows bravery and loyalty; a purple face shows a just and noble character; a black face indicates a rough and bold character; a green face shows stubbornness and a lack of self-restraint; a white face shows a villain; a yellow face indicates fierceness and ambition; blue describes a fierce and astute character whilst gold and silver are used for gods.  The way the paint is applied to a face also indicates character.  A white dot, for example, on the end of the nose indicates a witty or humorous character and is often worn by the acrobatic clowns.  In the Ming Dynasty (1318-1644 CE) the colours and patterns of face paints became standardised.