Culture

Photo essay: What it takes to be a Chinese opera singer

May 24, 2019

There are more than 300 different kinds of Chinese opera. Sichuan is one of them.

If you have heard of Sichuan opera, you probably know it as that Chinese show where performers change masks really quickly. But that’s mostly a tourist gimmick.

Real Sichuan opera—from the southwestern province of Sichuan—engages all parts of the body, including the hands, eyes, and feet.

Sichuan opera engages all parts of the body, including the hands, eyes, and feet.
Sichuan opera engages all parts of the body, including the hands, eyes, and feet. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

At its heyday, opera was the main source of entertainment in China, and the government actively promoted the art form as a propaganda tool.

When the Communists took over the country in 1949, they encouraged the creation of operas that toed the party line. Plays focused on themes of patriotism, loyalty, and hard work.

During the Mao era, operas focused on themes of patriotism, loyalty, and hard work.
During the Mao era, operas focused on themes of patriotism, loyalty, and hard work. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

But after China reformed its economy in the 1980s, opera houses had to appeal to a new middle class in order to be profitable.

Now, it’s mostly seen as a traditional art form, and its popularity has waned, but the government is making efforts to reinvest in it.

(Read more: A new Chinese opera features Donald Trump singing in Cantonese)

Among the different varieties, Sichuan opera is unique because it’s an amalgamation of different opera styles in China.

It takes performers over two hours to prepare for a show.
It takes performers over two hours to prepare for a show. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Sichuan opera arose about 300 years ago, when the province was sparsely populated. The government at the time wanted to build up the region and incentivized people to move there.

When they did, they brought their own local opera styles with them, and they all blended together to make Sichuan opera.

Chinese opera is characterized by elaborate makeup.
Chinese opera is characterized by elaborate makeup. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Watching a performance is a bit like watching the pantomimes of silent films from the 1920s.

Because Chinese opera sets tend to be more minimalistic than Western ones, actors have to exaggerate their facial expressions and movements to tell the story. There’s a lot of forceful pointing, animated head bobs, and eye rolling.

Sichuan opera makes heavy use of eye and hand movements to convey emotion.
Sichuan opera makes heavy use of eye and hand movements to convey emotion. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

“When a woman looks at a man, it’s very indirect,” says Sichuan opera singer Xu Chao, mimicking a woman bashfully looking away from a man. “When a man looks at a woman, it’s very direct.”

To practice, performers often light incense sticks in the dark and try to follow the flame with their eyes.

“You can’t move your head, just your eyes,” Xu says.

Actors often practice eye movements in the dark.
Actors often practice eye movements in the dark. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Actors are recruited by training academies when they’re young, often in their teens, and they spend hours practicing how to move, kick, and sing.

“You start practicing from a very young age because as you get older, your limbs become stiff,” Xu says.

The hours are grueling. Performers only get one day of rest a week.
The hours are grueling. Performers only get one day of rest a week. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

But fewer people are willing to go through the years of training. Xu’s cohort had 38 students, but now, only half of them still perform.

(Read more: How the Forbidden City is marketing itself to the Instagram generation)

On top of the grueling hours—performers only get one day of rest a week—the salaries are low, often at or below minimum wage.

“A lot of people felt that they weren’t suited for it, or that they had other options,” Xu says of his colleagues who quit. “But in opera, there’s a saying: as long as you’re living, you should never stop learning.”

Chinese traditionsChinese musicPhoto essay

Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Narrator: Gavin Huang

Videographer: Nathaniel Brown

Editor: Joel Roche

Mastering: Victor Peña

Journey