Ho Wai-On 何蕙安 aka Ann-Kay Lin

3 Times Too Many?

This refers to the title of my projected Internet opera

"Song & Dance of a 3-Time Cancer Survivor "

N.B. "Quben" is libretto cum script,

pronounced "chuben": Q as ch, u as german ü, en as in happen

Dear Wai-On,

Your remark that “the Cantonese opera of my childhood…cannot be appreciated by Westerners” explains why those Westerners who have been given a chance to read your thesis are skeptical about your use of it as a template, a “reservoir”, from which to borrow and make use of their own creative attempts to realize a quben, find the music and indeed the libretto to go with it.

The fact of our complete estrangement from something so dear to yourself must be painful. Our sheer inability to empathize with it is our cultural blind spot. It doesn’t diminish Cantonese opera. It is we, not Cantonese opera, who are diminished by the encounter.

Interestingly, it is thanks to abandoning some of the conditions you set out as indispensable to writing a Cantonese opera that you have had an initial success with the sketches so far completed. Those conditions, I suggest, proved in practice to be unworkable. The advantage for you is that as a result of your modifications you have arrived at a new starting point at which perhaps no one else has ever stood. If anyone is in a position to bring this hybrid to life it will be you, not your readers or, God forbid, your supervisors. I wonder what responses you have had from Chinese musician friends with whom you have shared your project? People who are in a position to appreciate where you are coming from.

What you need above all is a dramaturgical structure, characters whose interchanges are meaningful and involve us emotionally. The issues of Hero and Heroine remain hanging in the air where we left them two or three letters ago.

I’d like to move on to a new discussion about the “3-times” issue. I can think of nothing in art (musical themes excepted) that can cause such problems as repetitiousness. Keeping an audience interested in one instance of cancer survival is already a sufficient challenge. In life, three survivals are perhaps extraordinary, but here life and art part company. A story of three-time survival contributes, artistically, less than a story of one-time survival. Consider the case of Rasputin. There is no way for even the most ingenious artist to create a work with the theme of Rasputin’s survival of three attempts to kill him. There’s a place for him at Madame Tussaaud’s or in the Hammer Film repertoire, but so far as serious emotions and serious art goes his story is unusable.

Song and dance of a Cancer Survivor” would hit the mark, and the ironic connotation of the double entendre phrase “song and dance” makes it an intriguing title, better, to my mind, than “Waiting Game” or “Waiting Room”.

If you could modify the life story in the interest of your art there would be great advantages in abandoning the 3-time scenario. Less will reward you with more. Difficult enough to create even this simplified scenario, with characters, story, situations, developments an audience can emotionally bond with, caring about the heroine’s battle and her coming through against the odds. Given this reduction, heroine is not a figure I visualize you having difficulties in getting across. It’s the absence of the supporting cast you need to think about.

It might be worthwhile for you to look at Fassbinder’s film Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant and then the operatic version, based word for word on that film, which I saw premiered at the Coliseum (?) on my last visit to London ten years ago.

The line you remember is from Colderidge’s The Ancient Mariner. You will find the stanza in question here:


In a letter now in the making I am going to reverse the tables and offer you some insights into the way my entire work has been both enriched and bedeviled by the cross-cultural context in which it grew.

All best wishes as ever


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John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculptor Patricia Morley (née Booth), and grandson of Victor Booth, who was a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.  He had written ten novels, including the bestseller Pictures from the Water Trade.  

John David Morley to Me