Not to be confused with Beijing Opera, Sichuan Opera has a style all of its own.
If you’ve ever seen an opera performance in the US or Europe, what you’ll experience in Chengdu might not even register as “opera” but more of a variety show. I tend to think of Italian Opera as refined and elegant, whereas Sichuan Opera is more boisterous and animated. As expected, there’s singing (in a high-pitched, ear piercing tone) and traditional Chinese instruments such as the èrhú and gǔqín. But there’s also some unexpected elements as well: puppetry, shadow puppets, acrobats, comedy acts and fire breathing. Like most things in this part of China, Sichuan Opera is a laid back form of entertainment with deep historical roots.
Probably the most famous, and crowd pleasing, element of any Sichuan Opera is the face-changing or biàn liǎn. Starting about 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, the art of face changing was a secret coveted by the performers and was only handed down to males in the family. Today, it’s still somewhat secretive, though more and more tea houses and hot pot restaurants are offering shorter operas with watered down face-changing performances. I’ve even seen some female performers.
There’s several ways to change face, but usually it involves actors on stage wearing thin, silk masks of specific colors and switching the masks quickly without the audience seeing. The colors are representative of the character’s mood and they change at significant points in the story. It’s a slight-of-hand art that, if done well, is so quick the audience doesn’t see the exact method of changing masks. Talented actors can switch masks with a vigorous shake or nod of their head, while blowing a fine black dust, or while dramatically swiping their hand in front of their face. Quality matters here- face changers I’ve seen at a hot pot restaurant don’t do the art justice.
Want to see a Sichuan Opera? Here’s what you should know:
Actors, especially those in comedy skits, speak in Sichuanhua (the local Mandarin dialect). The moderator of the show, generally a woman or a man and woman together, will do their best to speak Putonghua, but the smaller the theater the less likely they speak pure Mandarin.
In general, you don’t need to understand Chinese to enjoy a show. There’s usually only one or two skits where there’s significant dialogue and the acting is so exaggerated that anyone can follow along.
It’s worth it to spend the money to see a real show. I recommend going to a show at Shufeng Ya Yun (see below). A more established theater like this one has better acts. In fact, at one hot pot restaurant a large portion of the show was a comedy performance by the emcee. She spoke entirely in the dialect and it was hard to follow. At one point, a drunken patron hijacked the microphone and turned the show into his personal karaoke performance.
Spend on a better theater, but save on your seats. The view is mostly the same regardless of where you sit.
Thoughts on Shufeng Ya Yun Opera House
Go a little early to see the performers putting on makeup. Some may even take a photo with you, though we were told that it’s an extra fee (but they didn’t seem to care enough to collect it).
Have tea- it’s served from pots with incredibly long spouts that can reach across tables. Just seeing them pour into your tiny cup from across the room without missing a drop is a show in itself.
Vendors will walk around before the show selling snacks, beer, massages, ear cleaning etc. I found to the snacks to be disappointing, but a good ear cleaning is always nice.
The theater isn’t fully enclosed, so you’ll be exposed to the weather. If it’s cold you’ll need a hat, gloves and boots. Old fashion style heaters made of hot coals are available though they only keep you warm for about half of the show. In the summer you should bring a fan.
Like most places in Sichuan, kids are welcome. This is not the type of show where the audience sits in silence. It’s perfectly acceptable to crack open peanuts, answer a cellphone, and get up to sooth a crying baby.
This theater does have brief English introductions at the beginning of each act, making it easier to follow along.
Not sure if it’s right for you?
If you’re debating about seeing Sichuan vs. Beijing Opera here’s my two cents: Go for a Sichuan show. First, there’s relatively little foreign tourism in Chengdu, and even fewer foreign tourists going to see an Opera, so the show is “authentic” in that it’s tailored to the Chinese audience. Second, it’s much cheaper in Western China. Tickets for a quality performance in Beijing range from 250-600 yuan. Tickets sold by my hostel, including private transportation, a snack and tea were 180 yuan each. Experience the uniqueness of Chinese Opera in Sichuan without blowing your budget.