Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Behind the Curtain

Chinese operas are a spectacle of light, color, and clashing cymbals, best viewed with a pair of earplugs.

full stage-1

The costumes and scenery are sumptuous, the singers’ warbles unearthly, and their painted expressions are heightened for viewers as far as the back row.

Such a stylized performance makes me wonder what goes on behind the satin curtains of a Chinese opera, and last week I was lucky enough to find out.

holding back curtain-1

Penang, MalaysiaA message lights up my phone: ?CHINESE OPERA TROUPE FROM FUJIAN HERE TONIGHT. WANT TO COME? MEET AT HAINAN TEMPLE 7PM? It?s an all-caps message from Ang Huah, director of cultural programs for the Hainan Clan Society in George Town, on the tropical island of Penang.

That night I climb a rickety ladder to a handmade wooden stage,


where a performer clicks arrows on her netbook in time with the actors’ dialogue.

She is in charge of the opera’s subtitles.

Subtitles 2-1

The troupe performs in the Fujian dialect of their home village in southern China; subtitles are in traditional Chinese characters so local  audience members can follow along, regardless of what dialect they speak.


A shrine is set up to the Opera Gods. After I shot this I was advised not to take photos of them; this close-up crop is blurry but gives a glimpse of the deities who influence everything front- and backstage.

written notes

From behind I spy a musician’s notes above her instrument.


Living and working in the confines of a tour bus require diplomacy with the inevitable power struggles between leading warriors, divas, and their supporting staff.

adjusting hair-1

The trust between an actress and her wig-stylist,


to that of a leading actress and her on-stage companion,

glance backstage-1

and of this warrior and the musician who sets the beat for the next scene, are key to the smooth functioning of a performance group.

with backdrop-1

The hand painted backdrops are a silent player in every scene,

changing sets in motion-1

and are changed with rapid precision.


Costumes have esoteric touches that inspire fashion designers even today, like these platform shoes.

Foreign visitors are occasion for stifled excitement: muffled smiles and curious glances mingle with powder and spangled hats backstage.

e with star-1

The leading lady was unhappy with the first three photos taken with me, but she approved of this one – I’ve crouched down so her wig towers over us.

with baby

They’re already priming the next generation of performers; this baby’s bed is a backstage bassinet, and he has already heard more Chinese operas in his short lifetime than most of us ever will.

between the curtains-1

You can see the entire set of my Chinese Opera pictures here on Flickr.

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