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  • The Design and Style of Opera Films
  • Han Shangyi and Anne Rebull
    Translated by Jessica Ka Yee Chan and Judith T. Zeitlin


Our country's classical opera is one of the world's unique arts. While it employs highly expressive means to open up the distinction between art and nature, it is also a realistic art form that draws from real life and is loved by the general public.

Opera uses the stage as if it were an unlimited space—a space with no boundaries, like the bottomless sea and the boundless sky. Whether opening and closing doors, going up and down stairs, riding on horses and carts, or even using any sort of prop, all its actions have been developed into beautiful choreography, so that one can say it is a performance form that "conquers space." Some people say that "the visual field of opera is constituted by the body of the performer" and that "Chinese opera is a complete art that everybody can understand." Indeed, because of the great expressiveness of the performed actions, the audience can experience a specific lived environment just by looking at the performers' bodies. The image of such an environment will vary according to the different life experiences of each spectator, so that the stage becomes a splendidly imaginary world.

To represent the art of opera through the different art of film, however, is a challenging task. The specific character of a film demands realistic, concrete environments created through three-dimensional effects of light and shadow, for what spectators hope to see in movie theaters is the vastness and vividness of life itself. Whether an interior or an exterior, in heaven or on earth, or even in the magical kingdom beneath the sea, spectators demand concrete depictions—and film has the capacity to do that. For instance, if a Mr. So-and-so is reading a letter, the spectators would subconsciously want to see the letter in a "close-up"; and if a Mr. So-and-so enters a forest, spectators also expect to see forest scenery, etc.

Hence, combining the two different artistic forms of film and opera into a unified whole to create "opera film" means confronting a series of problems. Here, I will just talk about the problem of the set in opera films from the perspective of a professional film art designer. [End Page 446]


In terms of scriptwriting and performance, opera does not have any realistic three-dimensional sets or prescribed spaces. When presenting opera through film, however, continuing to use just a simple curtain for the dramatic background will be unwelcome to spectators, because without a setting, the plasticity of cinema is weakened. Without a setting, there will be no distinct image or atmosphere to give performers and spectators a concrete, credible sense of the surroundings. Without a setting, there will be no infectious mood or convincing action. It would be very monotonous if the camera were to swing back and forth only to depict the curtain and the characters. Previous opera films such as The Stage Art of Gai Jiaotian (Gai Jiaotian de wutai yishu), Pushing the Mill Together (Shuang tuimo) and Rendezvous at Orchid Bridge (Lanqiao hui) are powerful examples of this.1 Therefore, we should definitely have a three-dimensional set; the question is in what style.

First of all, I think that the setting of an opera film should not be as realistic as that of a common feature film. Since the set is part of the opera performance as a whole, it should be unified with the style of the opera. The movements and speech of opera characters have been abstracted and refined into dance and song. In everyday life we have never seen anybody with such a long beard, nor any lady speaking in such a high-pitched voice, nor anybody riding a horse or walking the way they do onstage; and we have certainly never seen such bright-colored and beautiful costumes or furniture. This is because everything in opera has undergone a great deal of artistic polishing and is emphasized and exaggerated. The exaggeration of movement, costume, and makeup imposes demands on opera scenery, requiring that its...


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pp. 446-454
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