Among Chinese opera forms, Yue Opera is considered second only to Peking Opera in popularity throughout the Chinese diaspora. It also has a reputation for being the most demanding. Yet, a group of Chinese-American immigrants, mostly of retirement age, banded together to form a Yue orchestra and opera troupe. It had been decades since many had played their instruments with serious intent, but they still allowed Adam Engel to document their rehearsals and preparations leading up to their grand debut in the short documentary, The Hua Mei Orchestra (trailer here), which screens during the first ever Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.
In some ways, Engel’s film is also a love letter to Flushing, Queens, a majority-Asian neighborhood that is fast eclipsing Chinatown as the epicenter of the New York Chinese-American immigrant community. It is there where many orchestra members live and where they rehearse in the senior center owned by their benefactor.
However, those rehearsals appear perilously close to breaking down entirely in the film’s opening scenes. Eventually, a professional Yue conductor is recruited to firmly instill a sense of order (and consistent rhythms and tempos). Yet, tensions remain. In contrast, the opera performers seem to be better prepared.
Not to be spoilery, but you can rest assured, the music will stay true to those who honor it, no matter how much time they stayed away. Often, it was hardly a voluntary decision. Many members of the Hua Mei were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution or the post-Tiananmen crackdown. Frankly, we wish Engel had more time to let them tell their stories.