Face Changing

Authors: Caroline Phillips (China Daily)

2016-07-04

Face changing has been engaging audiences for nearly 200 years and keeps them guessing what mask will be revealed underneath ― or is that on top? All I can say is that it is spectacle like no other.
Can you really change your face? Absolutely, if you are part of the exciting Changing Faces performance at a Sichuan Opera performance in Chengdu. No one prepared me for the thrill of watching the performers whip their vividly coloured masks back and forth as if by magic; even when they are standing right in front of you it's almost impossible to understand the trick.
Right from the start of the act the atmosphere in the restaurant alters. Having enjoyed a sumptuous spicy meal with a fragrant tea your senses are ready to be thrilled. From the graceful sleeve dancers gliding across the stage we are moved into the realm of the dramatic. Sichuan Opera has many wonderful attributes but face changing for most is the highlight. The audience waits with anticipation and for those who have been before there is the hope that this time they really will see the artist make a mistake, slip up, and reveal the truth as to how it actually works. Face changing is one of the events in the evening when the audience puts WeChat to one side and pays attention.
The music is loud, which is not unusual in Chengdu, there is drama with fire breathing at the beginning to open the show and each mask change is timed perfectly. From livid red, yellow and black traditional face masks to spider man; with a flourish of a sleeve, a flick of a fan, or swoop of a cloak, the new face mask emerges in less than a second. The mask colours represent emotion; from green to blue, from black to dark red and white the audience can see anger, slyness, fear, triumph and many more represented in action.
Each actor is dressed in traditional costume: a dark black mantle adorns the head, a black cloak is used to make sweeping gestures and their body moves are well rehearsed. The absolute skill of the performer is clearly shown when he moves from the stage and amongst the audience. Their characters are menacing and visibly people shuffle in their seats trying to avoid eye contact. Unsuspecting guests will be treated to an up close and personal performance, and I challenge anyone not to be fascinated. When I was selected I stared into the eyes of the performer and within a blink of eye the frightening mask in front of me changed into a ninja turtle. My fellow diners asked me 'how did they do it'? I still have no idea.
Significantly this once male dominated art now welcomes female performers who add their own subtle variation on the traditional performance. Face changing has been engaging audiences for nearly 200 years and keeps them guessing what mask will be revealed underneath ― or is that on top? Who knows? All I can say is that it is spectacle like no other.
(The author is the Head of Communications of the Malvern College Chengdu)

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