5 things about Chinese opera that might surprise you
Visit the Chinese Opera Roving Exhibition at Stamford Arts Centre to learn more about the history of Chinese street opera. (Photo: National Arts Council)

5 things about Chinese opera that might surprise you

Look beyond the spectacle of colours, elaborate costumes, and the occasional acrobatic routine to uncover the history of one of Singapore’s oldest dramatic art form through a series of educational and immersive experiences at Stamford Arts Centre. The Chinese Opera Roving Exhibition is on until end-Aug, and it is filled with informative panels at the on-site traditional art exhibition.

Through a Virtual Reality (VR) 360-degree stage tour, visitors can also get a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation process of a street opera. Simply by scanning a QR code on their mobile devices, visitors can witness how the various elements, including costumes, make-up, props and sets, come together for a Chinese opera performance.

Here are five things about Chinese opera that might surprise you.

Chinese street opera started about 170 years ago in Singapore

While it is difficult to ascertain the exact year Chinese opera came to Singapore, this traditional art form was brought over by those who left their hometowns in China during a period of geographical, political and social turmoil in the 1800s. These migrants came to Singapore seeking a better life, and brought with them their customs, rituals, and ways of life.

Street opera performances were free for everyone

Street operas, also known as wayang, were linked to religious rituals, and were carried out in temples set up by the early migrants. It was commonly known that Chinese opera existed at places where gods were worshipped, and religious rituals were usually adapted to local practices as well, split accordingly to different dialect groups. For audiences of street operas, the performances were a reward after a day’s hard work. There were no entry fees in the 18th century, so these free street performances attracted large and lively audiences.  

It takes about an hour to do a complete Chinese opera make-up look

Instead of the characters simply playing a role, their outfits and appearances reveal and embody the role they are assigned, and the preparation for the play far exceeds the length of the play itself. The backstage preparation of a Chinese Opera performance includes make-up, dressing up, hairdo, the ironing of costumes, the orchestra rehearsal, props and sets preparation. Additionally, the general makeup routine before a Chinese Opera performance consists of six tedious steps, from applying the red foundation on the face to a scarlet hue on the lips.

The different colours on the characters’ masks represent their character-type 

In Chinese opera, the colourful masks are used to signify the character of a figure, whether it be malevolent, cunning, or courageous, and the colours and designs accentuate the facial characteristics and personality of the character. The red masks indicate bravery, uprightness and loyalty, and is commonly used for a courageous main character, whereas a white mask indicates treacherousness, suspiciousness and craftiness in a character. In comparison, the black mask symbolises impartiality and integrity, while the blue mask symbolises stubbornness and bravery. Green indicates that the character is stubborn and hot-tempered, and a gold mask is usually used on supernatural characters such as demi-gods, whereas a white patch painted on the bridge of the nose is used for comic-relief characters.

This traditional art form focuses a lot of symbolic gestures

A Chinese opera performance consists of characters using postures and movements to express emotions while telling a story. Some basic gestures and movement of characters on stage include walking techniques such as choppy strides, which represent the elegance and loveliness of female characters, and four big square steps, which are often used to represent masculinity and the forthrightness of male characters. Hand gestures are also an important part of the actor’s performances, since thoughts and feelings can be expressed through hand signs. For example, the hand signs of the dan (maiden) character resemble an orchid and represents the gentle and reserved personality of the character. Other hand signs that are symbolic include the sword fingers where the index and middle fingers are straightened and pointed towards a direction, or trembling hands facing inwards to represent shock and nervousness.

Learn more about the Chinese Opera Roving Exhibition here.

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