Peking Opera make-up transformation unveiled

Unmasked, an event being held at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden on Sept. 27, will offer audiences a look behind the curtains at the make-up process of Peking Opera. The demonstration will be followed by performances of Murder of a Concubine, and Princess Shuang Yang starring William Lau, Mr. Wang, Catherine Li and Heidi Specht.

In addition, Dressed in Drama, a once every 10 year exhibit that showcases vintage Peking opera costumes, jewelry and headpieces collected by Lau, a Chinese-Canadian artist and performer, will be held prior to Unmasked.

Getting into character

Lau says that during Unmasked, make-up demonstrations as well as the hair styling procedures will be done in front of the audience.

Peking Opera performer with stage make up looking in the mirror | Photo courtesy of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Peking Opera performer with stage make up looking in the mirror | Photo courtesy of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

“All this is part of the transformation process of the actor and actress to the character on stage,” he says.

In describing the style and color of Peking Opera make-up, Lau, gives examples of various effects the make-up creates for certain roles.

“These are all invented or created by various artists through the generations, like the use of facial patterns. The colour symbolizes things, for example black is honesty, and then white [can mean] trickiness,” he says.

Specht, founder and artistic director of performance company Pangaea Arts, will be performing with Lau in the event. She says that because the make-up design is related to specific character role types, it helps the audience to know something about the character the moment the actor arrives on stage.

“For an audience already familiar with Chinese opera, they will have expectations and knowledge already about the character based on the make-up design,” says Specht.

Lau explains that, historically, Chinese opera was performed in outdoor or dim venues. The dramatic make up was an effort to be esthetically appealing on stage to audiences from afar.

The make-up transformation however doesn’t simply rely on its dramatic effect. Lau notes that depending on the role, the actors consider their character’s facial expressions and highlight certain parts of their facial muscles accordingly.

“This will help depict nuances of the characters on stage,” he says.

Sharing the art

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, Lau, who has been sharing the tradition of Peking opera with Canadian audiences for 20 years, says that growing up in Canada has helped him to connect with Canadian performers and audiences.

“I grew up here so I kind of understand what the Canadian audience wants so I try to not only present traditional song but I started to push vocabularies and actually collaborate with western performers like Heidi [Specht],” he says.

Lau explains that he and Specht will develop a bilingual Peking opera during the performance where Lau will speak and sing in Mandarin and Specht will sing and dialogue with Lau in English.

Exploring behind the scenes

Specht says that the Peking opera make-up functions almost like a mask, as it completely transforms one’s face but allow allows performer time to enter into their characters.

“Because it takes some time to apply the make-up, it allows for meditative time before performance to transform into the character,” she says.

Lau agrees that doing the make-up and looking at the mirror is a form of transformation, not just for the audience but for the performers themselves.

“If you’re not even convinced you are the character that you’re going to portray, how are you going to convince your audience?” he says.

Lau sees Unmasked as an opportunity to showcase the different layers of work involved in the make-up process of Peking Opera.

“When we go on stage everything is done; everything looks beautiful and nice but actually behind the scene there’s a lot of processes that require a lot of training, precision and esthetic,” he says.

Lau hopes that the audience will be entertained during the events, as well as see the complexity of the transformation process and appreciate the art.

“Presentation is nice but the preparation is part of the art process,” he says.

Specht also hopes the audience will appreciate this art form and that the performance, will help develop new audiences locally.

“I would like to see it to continue to thrive. I hope this performance will contribute to developing and piquing people’s interest,” she says.