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Calling ladies to dress - and cross-dress

JOYCE Xu was never able to sit still through an hour of traditional Chinese opera. She fidgeted and yawned, so she didn't even bother attending.

"Traditional opera is usually tedious, sometimes too long," says the 27-year-old marketer at a multimedia company. "I just can't relate to the ancient story and find it a waste of time."

Just like Xu, many young people can't understand and appreciate traditional Chinese operas, which are generally considered slow, boring and dull.

But a recent half-day photography experience - when she dressed in Yueju Opera costumes - has changed Xu's mind. Wearing flamboyant gowns and wearing heavy makeup, Xu felt like a figure out of a classic opera.

"The moment I put on the headgear and performed the shui xiu (literally 'water sleeve,' a movement using long flowing inner sleeves), I felt I was exactly Diao Chan when I acted the figure in 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms'," she says. Diao was one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China.

In an effort to boost the waning popularity of traditional opera, the Shanghai Yueju Opera House recently started a photography service (reservations required) so people can have their photos taken in full Yueju Opera-style costume and accessories.

During its first few months, two-character packages cost 880-1,160 yuan (US$129-170), each with 30 digital photos. The more expensive package also provides prints, an album and framed photo. Prices are expected to rise in a couple of months.

So far the call-for-appointment photo shoots have attracted around 10 opera admirers and curious theatergoers.

They can dress as Yueju Opera characters from "A Dream of Red Mansions," "The Romance of the West Chamber" and "The Butterfly Lovers."

They can play an imperial concubine, an elegant young woman from a noble family, or a romantic young male scholar. Most male Yueju Opera roles - notably those of sensitive young men - are played by women.

Those who are interested need to do some research first, to decide on their characters and learn about their personalities.

The opera house has a dressing room and a photo studio. Professional stylists from the opera house help with wardrobe and makeup. All the garments, wigs and accessories are exactly like those on stage.

Compared with Peking Opera photo shoots initiated by the Shanghai Peking Opera House three years ago, the Yueju Opera shoots are less demanding. Performing is less complicated.

The gentle, sentimental and feminine art form originated in Zhejiang Province and usually focuses on love. Unlike Peking Opera, Yueju Opera has very few martial arts and acrobatics scenes.

The whole process takes about two hours and people learn what goes on behind the scenes and what it takes to perform well. There's more to it than singing on stage.


The final process of this operatic adventure is artistic photography. Young performer Yu Jinglan is one of the art supervisors who demonstrates how to portray the character with typical, stylized Yueju Opera gestures.

Each movement conveys particular emotion and feeling.

For instance, the typical lanhua zhi, or "orchid finger" gesture, is said to create an aura of beauty and femininity. Yet the flicking of a sleeve usually expresses disdain.

Using small properties such as a paper fan, book, silk handkerchief and lute, Yueju Opera admirers can capture moments in famous scenes.

In addition to regular performances, the Shanghai Yueju Opera House hosts salons to popularize the art form.

"This special photography experience can give younger generations a better appreciation of the traditional theatrical art and the demanding lives of performers," says Jessica Han, an official of the Shanghai Yueju Opera House.


Veteran makeup artist Sun Yiyao has made up the faces of many noted Yueju Opera performers for years.

First, she applies a layer of makeup base, then flesh-colored oil paints, then come the eyes, eyebrows, lips and cheeks.

The eyes are probably the most difficult as emotions and mental states are expressed through the eyes. The eyes are painted wide to make them look large and shiny.

The eyebrows are painted long to create an overall glamorous effect. False eyelashes are essential.

Then the expert applies color on the cheeks and lips. Rosy pink cheeks and brilliant red lips signify an outgoing and cheerful characters.


The studio has more than 30 sets of gorgeous costumes in different styles. Many are elaborately embroidered.

Zhou Juan, the dresser, selects the costume for the role.

Dressing is very simple. The floor-length robes can cover pants and even shoes.

Male characters, however, wear high-heel clogs to give them height. Be careful not to stumble.

Hair wrapping

Before putting on the headgear, it is necessary to wrap and fix the hair so that it is not loose. The process usually takes about 15 minutes.

Peking and Kunqu operas require more complicated wrapping, including adhesive plasters and tight threads. But hair wrapping in Yueju Opera is simpler and more comfortable, says Sun.

She first coils and piles up the hair, ties a cloth strip around the player's head. Finally she attaches colorful head gear - wigs in elaborate hair styles, pins, accessories and artificial flowers.

Address: Bldg 16, 10 Fuxing Rd W.

Cost: 1,160 yuan (US$170) for a two-character package (30 digital photos, 30 print photos in an album, 10-inch framed desktop photo); 880 yuan (US$129) for a two-character package with only digital photos.

Tel: 6437-1140 (Service is not provided regularly, please call and book in advance; available from 9:30am to 4:30pm)


1. It is much easier to change makeup from a female role to a male role, so play the female character first.

2. Deep cleansing oil is provided. Wipe and wash your face gently.

3. Casual wear recommended (jeans, low-cut long-sleeved T-shirts). No high-necked T-shirts or knits.

4. Traditional operas emphasize the artistic conception of a character. You need to know about the personality of the characters you wish to impersonate. Read up. You can't just imitate the gestures to get it right.


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