Text and photographs by Chen Zhi
The curtain rises, revealing performers on a small stage, donning colorful costumes and masks to depict a true-to-life tale. Characterized by diverse singing, recitation, and martial arts, in addition to the singular makeup and costumes, Peking Opera has been a Chinese entertainment favorite since feudal emperors were amongst patrons, joining the general public as fans of the art.
As a photography enthusiast, I was particularly fascinated by Peking Opera. I first became familiar with it in the 1970s when I was still a young boy. In that era, only eight so-called “model plays” of Peking Opera were staged. Near my father’s workplace was a theater, where Red Lantern, Shajiabang, The Red Detachment of Women and other “model plays” were often staged by the Wuhan Peking Opera Troupe. My friends and I would climb heavy iron bars over the windows to peer inside and catch some of the performance for free. The years passed too quickly, and when I reached middle-age, I realized that I hadn’t been back in too long. Recently, I finally had the chance to peek backstage for a different perspective on the timeless art.
Even for Chinese people, mysteries remain as to how troupes effectively function. How are relationships between the stars and bit players? Every troupe needs at least a couple outstanding actors, along with supporting players and a staff to serve them. Whether a troupe can be financially successful depends a lot on the performances and popularity of its stars. So, leading actors understandably get the best treatment whether or not they’re about to perform. Stars have a variety of specialized assistants to apply makeup, serve tea, and aid costume changes.
In the olden days, however, there were actually more rules backstage at the Peking Opera. Rarely was the audience allowed backstage to prevent actors from being seen out of costume and makeup. Keeping their true faces secret helped increase box office receipts. Some troupes advertised unique makeup tricks and special props, which they protected like trade secrets, hoping to keep their competition in the dark. Also, backstage was always ripe for gossip, which troupes certainly hoped to keep from outside ears.