BEHIND THE SCENES

Embroidered theatrical costume becomes the main stream in Cantonese opera. The costume design is largely determined by sex, role, plot, personality, environment and occasion. Costumes are basically classified into python ceremonial robes, armor, gowns with sloping collars, cloaks, official robes, gowns with vertical collars, coats and so on. Each type of costume is matched with a particular headgear, footwear and facial make-up.

THE MUSIC & INSTRUMENTS

MUSIC – In Chinese theatre there is no bandmaster. The band is usually comprised of brass, wind and stringed instruments lead by the percussion player (the conductor) who beats the rhythm on a wooden box made from special wood. The erh-wu, the two-stringed fiddle, is an important instrument because it accompanies the singer. The music director’s function is to bring together the musical components.

To some people, the loud gongs and clashing cymbals are irritating, but no more irritating than a modern day rock band. Gongs and cymbals punctuate movement, support the singing, and accents expressions and gestures of the players. It also marks the steps of warriors, officials and battle scenes.

SINGING – Female voices are sung in the coloratura range or falsetto range. Chinese opera is usually never sung or spoken in natural voice. Sound does not come directly from the vocal cords, but rather from the diaphragm, which is the result of air from the lungs and stomach passing through the vocal cords. Students are trained without using microphones. Volume depends on the depth of the voice and how much the singer can muster. The best singers deliver songs with clear smooth diction and no voice vibration.

Chinese opera lyrics are sung in uniform sentences of 7, 10, or 14 characters. Every two sentences express one idea. The uniformity of lyrics was developed from the system of Chinese poetry. Chinese opera is written in “classical” Chinese language and in the highest literary poetic form.

ACROBATICS

Chinese martial art has long been an integral part of Chinese theatre. All acrobatic stunts are calculated precisely with exact timing. Self-defense movements are choreographed into dance.

ARMORS & WEAPONS

The most spectacular and the most brilliant costume is the armor worn by warriors. It replicates the steel mail and leather armor suits worn by ancient Generals. The most ornate part is the front piece. It is usually embroidered with the fighter’s heraldic motif. General Kuan Yu always appears in green and gold. No one else is permitted to wear these colors. Generals have four flags on their backs when in battle. This represents the symbol of authority in the Chinese military.

There are Chinese lances and spears befitting different characters and are made mostly of wood. Sharpened weapons are banned. Clubs, halberds and tridents all have their place in Chinese pugilism and are often used on stage. Javelins, bows and arrows are used in a symbolic way. The large swords with a long or short handle are for fighting on horseback. The sacred sword, blue dragon and crescent moon, is used by General KuanYu.

COSTUMES & MAKEUP

Chinese opera costumes are rarely matched anywhere in the world for its brilliant color and magnificence. They usually represent clothing of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) Costumes are more symbolic than realistic. The costumes are made of silk and satin often embroidered with flowers and motifs. Lesser characters wear cotton with no ornamentation. Foxtails signify barbarian characters.

HEADDRESS & HAIRDOS— Young or single women wear pigtails or long ponytails. Mature or married women have their hair wrapped on top of their head. The scalloped hair and side-burn pieces framing the face of females is to give the appearance of the “perfect oval” face. Elderly women wear a cloth wrapping their chignon style hairdo. The more ornate the headdress, the more affluent is the character being portrayed.

BEARDS – There are18 different kinds of beards for different roles. Full beard to the waist signifies old age. Beards are generally white, black or grey. There are also other strange colors, i.e. red, purple, red and black. The three-whisker beard is a scholar. General Kuan Yu, the God of fighters, who died in 219 AD, has a waist long 5-whisker style. Mustaches are for clowns. Beards that shoot upwards with tufts, denotes quick temper and generally a rough character.

Bright red is the traditional color for a wedding scene. A veil of red cloth over the face of a female signifies a bride. The bridegroom is the only privileged person allowed to remove the veil on the wedding night.

Without exception, male characters must wear some form of headdress. Scholar and merchant types usually wear hats that are without wings. Magistrates have two flat wings on each side of their headdress and Prime Ministers have long wings. The shapes of the wings indicate the character of the official. Oblong symbolizes high integrity. Diamond shape denotes dubious character. Circular wings, officials who love bribes. Even a beggar wears a headdress. Anyone who appears without headdress is either in great danger, or has already encountered danger.

FACE PAINTING & MAKEUP–The purpose of face painting adds color and zest to the performer and it informs the audience at a glance the performer’s character. The red rouge used around the eyes is to accentuate the eyes and eye movement, which is very important in Chinese opera. Players are trained to administer their own makeup and hairpieces.

The age and marital status of the female is perceived by the way she wears her hair and makeup. Upper class females are the epitome of femininity. They are graceful, coquettish and even flirtatious. Mature women wear makeup that is subtle. Heroes are portrayed as handsome, brave, and skilled intellectually and physically.

Black makeup denotes honest, fearless warriors; white, powerful but treacherous persons; red, outstanding Generals of excellent character; blue, cruel people. Old men usually wear various types of long beards and their makeup is in softer tones. Young men are always beardless.