PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am


Sichuan Opera is characterised by a celebration of colourful costumes, acrobatic flips and gestures, and a bag of magic tricks, including such feats as third eyes, fire-spitting, knife-hiding and, above all, the secret art of bian lian or face changing.

Face changing is the art of changing masks at an astonishing rate, showing the audience the gamut of human emotions without letting anyone see how it truly happens. The skills are passed on from one generation to the next and are generally kept from women, foreigners and basically anyone outside of the Sichuan Opera community. Over the past 300 years, the theatre families of Sichuan have managed to keep their secret to themselves, with only rumours of how it is actually done slipping out to outsiders. Make-up and oils are important tools for the face changing maestro, in addition to painted silk masks and strings - and these tidbits are enough for amateurs to wow audiences.

The fire breathing, acrobatics and swordplay are merely teasers for the main event, which always involves a backlit sole performer who flourishes his cape a few times before he gets down to some serious face changing. Within a matter of seconds, fury, sadness, joy, love and confusion all flash across the performer's face. With each flourish of his hands, another emotion penetrates the audience and the whole room oohs and ahhs in appreciation of the display.