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Inside Job: Peking Opera make-up artist

Frank goes backstage as a Peking opera make-up artist

My main question about Peking opera is ‘why?’, but that’s proving hard to answer, so instead I’m tackling ‘how?’ I head backstage to find out just how they paint on those expressions and what it’s like to be a make-up artist. Would this day inside the art form itself shed any light on jingju at large? With no experience of even putting make-up on my own face (though, after this experience, I’m all for it), I’m getting nervous as I arrive with our beautiful designer, Sissi, as my model-victim.

As Sissi changes into a plain but traditional Chinese shirt that I can spill on, I survey the tools of the trade I’ll be using at the Ning Xi Yi Fang Studio: pots of elm bark glue, triangular sponges, nets, black bandages and strong masking tape.

My canvas sits down, clean-faced and with her hair tied back. The plan is that the boss and top make-up artist Tang Suyi will do one half of the face and I will do the other. Perfect for any scenes where the character has a stroke.

Step one The base layer

Tang gets going at speed, applying a very thick, oily, cream-coloured base layer in generous quantities. Heard of trowelling it on? We literally use a palette knife.

Step two Sex change

Tang takes a step back and decides that Sissi will make a far better xiaosheng (小生) ‘young male’ than a danjue (旦角) ‘young female’ role because, apparently, she’d make a very handsome xiaosheng. Everyone is totally fine and professional about this.

Step three Applying red and ‘fixing’

We then slap on dollops of reddish-pink oil on the cheekbones. Then comes the lipstick, applied with a tiny brush. We then dust down the face with a load of white fixing powder, to ‘set’ the makeup. Tang explains how this is necessary, especially for maintaining the colour. Apparently, the makeup only looks good for four hours and has to be reapplied after that. This is more of an issue on TV shoots where the face has to come off and on several times a day.

Step four Brow and bridge

Tang draws on the eye make-up (hua yanjing 画眼睛) with blacks and browns. He totally reinvents Sissi’s eyebrow line and adds that signature upward slanting line up to her hairline. He then draws the pink ‘bridge’ on her forehead, which is simply a mark to say the character is a male. (Maybe just don’t make the rest of the face look like a female?)

Step five Head netting and moon doors

Confession: at this point, I’ve spent about 34 hours on one eyebrow and as the next steps are a two-person job and really quite technical, I take a more ‘watch and learn’ approach for the next part. A black bandage is tightly bound around our xiaosheng’s head and her hair is pulled into a net. Out comes the tape. This is a bit of a surprise and has a huge effect on the facial expression. A criss-cross of tape pulls the eyebrows even further up, accentuating that quizzical look. The curve in the bandage at the forehead’s top – the ‘moon door’ (yuemen月门) – turns out to be a very important detail and signifier of a quality costume. We then wrap Sissi in her gown, headdress and platform boots.

Step six Joker face

Like all the best things in life, the session ends in wet wipes. This creates a terrifying visage that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look tame by comparison. As we’re getting ready to leave and I start considering my future career as a make-up artist, an assistant gently points out that the job doesn’t really exist because, of course, Peking opera artists have to do their own make-up anyway; the guys at this studio only do these makeovers for fun photoshoots. So it looks like my next job might well have to be full-on opera singer. Encore!


To get an operatic makeover, go to ningxiyingfang.com.

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