Written by Juliette Qi
The Sichuan Opera: A Historical Art
Ranking among one of China’s top opera schools, the Sichuan Opera has a long history dating back more than 400 years to the end of the Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty. At that time, in the Sichuan region, one could witness several different forms of popular theater that gradually developed and merged to become today’s Sichuan Opera.
The Sichuan Opera incorporates various artistic specialties typical of the region to develop an unforgettable grand spectacle. It represents a modern synthesis of 5 historical and melodious styles well known in China. It is characterized by solo songs, skillful interpretations, rich percussion instruments and incredibly funny comedies. The artists are dressed in brightly colored costumes and move quickly in time with dramatic music. They also wear masks with sparkling colors that they change in a fraction of a second.
The show’s tricks, such as quick changes of face without make-up, acrobatics like jumping through hoops on fire or, the concealment of sabers, fascinate and entertain the audience. Note that “the magic change of face” is particularly famous.
Development of “Face Change”
The ‘change of face,’ or “bian lian” in Chinese, appeared around 300 years ago during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795). This theatric technique represents an important aspect of the Sichuan Opera. Furthermore, the precise techniques used to modify the masks in modern opera remain a closely guarded secret.
This secret is transmitted from generation to generation among the actors. In contemporary opera, comedians wave their arms, turn their heads while their painted masks change constantly, causing astonishment and amusement among the spectators. At first, the color of actors’ faces was changed by means of colored powder sprayed out of containers. The powder thus adhered to their oiled skin. Another method was to smear their face with colored paste hidden in the palms of their hands. For example ,red symbolized anger and black for an extreme fury.
From about 1920, the artists began to use multi-layered masks made of materials such as paper. During the performances, they successively removed the layers to show different faces which is called Bian Lian. Later this technique has practically become an art in itself and contributes to the peculiarity of this Opera. This technique is a well-kept secret that is transmitted only from actorss to actor.
Nowadays, actors can have up to ten masks and change face every 10 seconds during a simple hand wave and the purpose is to surprise the audience. It is amazing to see these actors changing their masks with a magic sweep of the hand or by turning their heads and, therefore, it seems difficult to notice the transformation. In this nuance of gestures, the artists constantly change their face without revealing the slightest clue. The most talented of them can wear up to 24 masks and change 10 masks in less than twenty seconds.
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