Posted by: Tommy | October 21, 2011

The Sichuan Opera – Opera for Guys

I know. When you saw the word Opera in the title of the post, you probably assumed it was written by Anna. And truth be told, she was quite surprised when I agreed to go with her to this opera at all, much les write about it. Operas, along with ballets, symphonies and musicals, are the kinds of “cultural” performances that I generally try to avoid.

But in this case, I had a secret. I’d read someone else’s blog post about the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu and I knew it wasn’t the sort of opera that the word “opera” generally describes. The Sichuan opera, according to this random blogger, features knife-throwing, fire-spitting and an amazing shadow puppet artist! So when she mentioned the opera as a possible attraction during our brief visit to Chengdu, I put up a fight and then “grudgingly” agreed to accompany her.

After a day at the panda center, we signed up for the hostel’s trip to the opera. Surprisingly, the hostel’s tickets were cheaper than the box office price and we were, not surprisingly, sitting in the back section. There were 7 people from our hostel in the van – Luke and Lou, a Welsh couple who were in the last 2 weeks of a 15 month trip, and 3 Thai people that we barely talked to. The bus arrived an hour early for the opera, so we spent the time talking to the Welsh folks.

Anyway, we were seated (at least it was the first row of the cheap seats, about 5 rows from the back) and the lights dimmed. A pretty, young Chinese woman came out to welcome us. She would intro each act for the evening in both English and Chinese, though all other dialogue would be in Chinese. The first act was a drumline.

The drumline.

The drummers played for about 5 minutes, then a troupe of dancing people came out. First with flags, then in elaborate costumes. A fight scene was played out, well, danced out – but we speak no Chinese, so we just admired the costumes and didn’t worry about the ‘story’.

The emcee came out again and told us the next act would be a famous Chinese romance story. It starred one of the guys from the fight, still in the same costume, and a chick with really long sleeves. She had 6 hand maidens, (I think, again, it’s all in Chinese) and they did some interesting choreography twirling their sleeves. The guy had a cool hat with 2 long, flexible feathers sticking out if it. But this opera was not going where I had expected – so far, 20 minutes and just a bunch of dancing. Anna looked happy, though.

And then – shadow puppets! It was hard to get a decent picture of this because she moved all the time and it was dark, but the detail in the shadow puppets was impressive. A screen was set up in the middle of the stage with a light positioned to look like a full moon. The artist sat behind the screen so we could only see the shadows. She proceeded to make all sorts of animals, set to a soundtrack featuring music and animal noises. She’d make a cat or dog or all types of birds, then have them singing or squawking to the soundtrack. After the show, we discussed with Lou and Luke and decided our favorite was the owl, which she used 2 hands and her head to create.

A shadow camel.

The next act was more dancing, but this was done by a puppeteer holding her puppet above her head. Somehow, the puppets hands were extremely flexible and the puppeteer made it spin a handkerchief, pick flowers out of a hat and do other dextrous activities. Pretty cool, but not as interesting as the next act. The emcee came out and called it “Happy Clown Firehead”. That promised to be awesome!

After she finished, the spotlight panned over to a guy standing behind us in the back of the theater. A pudgy, bald Chinese man wearing what can only be described as either a pink, silk short apron or a long bib and pink silk pants. There was some dialogue with his “wife” in Chinese, but it seemed like he was in trouble. And for his punishment, he’d have to keep a flaming oil lamp on his head. She got him doing more and more ridiculous things, always expecting him to drop the lamp (and presumably get punished or something). But, as you would expect, this guy was fantastic at keeping the lamp on his head. He climbed on top of a table. He jumped up and down. Eventually, he crawled head first under two benches, all the while keeping the lamp steady. Then he was made to flip to his back, still balancing the lamp, and crawl backward under the benches again. When he made it, the crowd went wild. Rereading it here, it sounds kind of stupid, but in person – pretty impressive.

Funny clown show.

The next act almost put me to sleep (we’d had a full day at the panda center and little sleep the night before) so I won’t dwell on that. It was a guy who plays a lame Chinese instrument on top of terrible background music.

But the final act made the whole show – it was even better than the firehead and the shadow puppets (though I was disappointed by the lack of a knife thrower – I’d read they use audience volunteers and like to choose the foreigners). Anyway, the final act was called Changing Faces and it’s what makes the Sichuan Opera famous. 4 people, some of them dressed in the same costumes as the first act, come out, dance around and tell some sort of story through their actions. And while they do it, they, as you might have guessed from the name, change faces. They are all wearing full-face masks, painted Chinese-style in bright colors. As they dance or turn, they wave a yellow fan in front of their face and all of a sudden, a new face appears. They’ll go from yellow/green to red/blue. From a creepy green dragon face to a joker-esque face. The puppeteer was back, carrying the puppet. The puppet wore a mask and changed faces along with everyone else. At some point, the puppet started breathing fire – we had no idea why.

Over the course of 6 or 7 minutes, each dancer had changed faces at least 12 times, probably even more than that. I spent most of the performance watching through my camera screen, trying to get a slow-mo video that would show me how it was done. The dancers all finished on their normal face – and then one guy somehow went back from his normal face to a mask. Even with the slow-mo, I haven’t been able to figure that one out. With that done, the lights came up, the performers came out to take their bows and we departed.

Anna was happy – I’d gone with her to the opera. And I was happy – credit for the opera, but actually seeing a clown, some shadow puppets and Changing Faces which doesn’t fit into any category I can think of – maybe magic show. On to the Hot Pot restaurant, to continue an incredibly busy, touristy day in Chengdu.



  1. Looks like a very entertaining evening.
    Chinese Vegas variety show.
    The Man Opera could be a new show on the cable channel that has The Man Show.

  2. From Pandas to the Opera…what great experinces! I miss you both, so very much. I’m starting to plan for Christmas!!! xoxo, Kita

  3. Getting a little “culture” there — hooray for you!

  4. What an interesting day you had! can’t believe you’ve been gone more than a year-don’t think I could be gone that long.

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