Inside Job: Kunqu performer

Jake Newby is trying every job in Shanghai. This month: kunqu performer

To become the kunqu character of Yang Guozhong requires approximately one and a half hours in make-up. Not only is it a painstaking, time-consuming process, but most of the troupe preparing for a performance of The Palace of Eternal Life have to apply the specially-made opera face paints themselves - only the stars get the assistance of a make-up artist. I’m a long way from being a kunqu star, but to avoid me looking more like Heath Ledger’s Joker than a member of an emperor’s court, I get a little help with my make-up from actor Zhang Qiancang. Okay, a lot of help.


He begins by caking my face in bright pink paint and red blusher, before layering on a white eyemask-like shape, daubing some new eyebrows across the top and giving me some Avril Lavigne-worthy eyeliner. He lightly chides me for the roughness of the shaving job I’ve done in preparation for coming backstage at Fuzhou Lu’s Yifu Theatre. ‘Actors aren’t allowed to grow a beard,’ says organiser Steven Cha, as Zhang attempts to blot out my stubble with pink make-up. ‘And their shaves have to be very clean.’

Zhang seems unconcerned by this, but then in terms of sacrifices for their art, being clean-shaven is probably fairly low down on the list for performers of the traditional opera, which was developed in nearby Kunshan in the 16th century. After attending a practice session for four hours and spending three more backstage before a show, I only get a tiny glimpse into the intense rehearsal regime that actors undertake, but it’s enough to know that to make it in this refined art-form takes an enormous amount of dedication.


In the week building up to their performances on one of Shanghai’s most renowned opera stages, Zhang Beili - the lead in The Palace of Eternal Life - attempts to teach me some of the key movements. He shows me how to stand with my feet at right angles to each other for stability and to turn my torso at a different angle ‘as if it’s detached from your legs’. He also tries to teach me how to form a perfect circle with my thumb and middle finger while arcing my index finger backwards. I fail at this, largely because my index finger resolutely insists on pointing straight up. Fortunately, Zhang has a fix for this: he bends it right back for me.


Such hands-on corrections appear to be perfectly natural to him. ‘You have to train your body to bend in ways it’s not used to,’ he says, before offering some words of encouragement as I try over and over again to make a swoop with my arm look even remotely graceful: ‘That was a little bit good looking,’ he says. ‘A little little bit.’ I get the feeling he’s going easy on me.

Zhang Jun, perhaps the most famous contemporary kunqu performer, went through eight years of such training after he was chosen at the age of 12 as the only boy from 2,000 candidates to attend the Shanghai Traditional Opera School. After about eight minutes of contortions, I’m in all sorts of pain.

I begin to get a sense that perhaps kunqu is not my calling, but I’m still determined to go backstage on the night of the performance - mostly because I want to try on one of the costumes. Once my make-up has been painstakingly applied, I’m sent to wardrobe for my general’s robes and laughs about my shoe size (they don’t have any footwear approaching a 47, so I stick with my Feiyues).


After the intricately hand-stitched robes have been fastened into place by a cord wrapped around my waist and ribs with what I assume to be corset-like tightness, I’m passed to the headgear department. A cold, dank stretch of hair-like material is wound around my head to act as a base for a decidedly bling headdress. The assistant tells me the initial band is wet to reduce friction, but he winds it so tight as to negate any feeling of comfort.

With my transformation into Ming dynasty general almost complete, actor Zhang Huan shows me how to walk the walk - pointing my legs out at unnatural angles and rolling my feet from heel to toe. It’s tough, but I feel better when Zhang reminds me that the character I’m dressed for is the Chancellor of the Right and points to the numerous dragons on my outfit as evidence of this elevated status. ‘Keep your head up high,’ he says. ‘Like a boss,’ I add for him.


However, just as I’m beginning to feel that I’m literally taking a step in the right direction, one of the costume people reminds me that there’s a long way to go before they let me tread the boards for real: ‘Right, you just need to practice walking like that for six months, then you’ll be ready for the next bit of training.’

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