Susanna Reinhart prepares for a performance with the Vancouver Cantonese Opera Society. | Photo by BC
Susanna Reinhart prepares for a performance with the Vancouver Cantonese Opera Society. | Photo by BC

Carmen Garcia enjoys making faces. For over 20 years she has studied everything from smiles, frowns and grimaces to skin, tone and textures to create the faces of some of the most well-known and beloved characters in the opera world.

“I’m playing with people’s faces,” says Garcia, head makeup designer at the Vancouver Opera Company (VOC).

From the imperious Princess Turandot, tragic Madame Butterfly and her vivacious namesake, Carmen, Garcia has learned to navigate the superficial lines of human drama and emotion with expert accuracy and a sense of fun.

Nonetheless, in preparation for the upcoming Canadian premier of Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Garcia looks forward to utilizing a simpler approach to showcase the opera’s understated theme and talented ensemble.

“I was blown away,” says Garcia of the opera by award-winning composer Tan Dun.

The opera will feature Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell as the jealous brother to the doomed princess in a story about ill-fated love and Asian myth.

“He has a beautiful voice,” says Garcia of Honeywell, whose features will not be significantly altered beyond darkened hair and a slightly yellower skin tone for the sake of his role as a Chinese prince.

“We want [to] emphasize the character not ethnicity,” says Garcia, who recently met with Tea’s director Paul Peers to discuss his priorities.

Fellow theatre makeup professional Jaylene McRae understands the challenge of ethnic make-up.

“Every culture offers a different image of beauty,” says McRae, talent leader at Blanche MacDonald’s CurliQue Beauty Boutique.

McRae distinguishes between exploiting a culture without understanding and exploring the world sincerely with an attitude of mindfulness.

“When telling a story that involves a history of people, it’s all about who they are being celebrated,” she says.

Both McRae and Garcia also stress the importance of respect and collaboration in their work with clients, performers, directors and other artists.

“Makeup is only a part of the story,” says McRae.

Garcia calls further attention to a significant difference between opera and regular theatre performers.

Carmen Garcia, makeup designer for the Vancouver Opera Company, recommends keeping the skin clean and clear in between makeup applications. | Photo by Bessie Chow
Carmen Garcia, makeup designer for the Vancouver Opera Company, recommends keeping the skin clean and clear in between makeup applications. | Photo by Bessie Chow

“First they are singers, then they are actors,” she says. So to avoid adversely impacting their ability to perform, Garcia is especially vigilant about the quality and quantity of makeup applied to her principals.

Interestingly, while Garcia admires the relative simplicity and minimalism of some modern Asian stages, fans of traditional Chinese opera are usually drawn to the heavy masks of colour, elaborate headdresses and detailed costumes for which the genre is known.

“When we were younger, Mom would say, ‘are you doing an opera?’ to indicate that we are making a big fuss or deal,” says local Cantonese opera enthusiast Susanna Reinhart.

“Many people do [Chinese] opera because it’s beautiful,” she adds.

Reinhart, a member of the Vancouver Cantonese Opera Society, explains how she and her fellow performers spend an average of at least two to three hours putting on makeup before a show. Garcia, on the other hand, will have only one hour (not including three days of dress rehearsals) to prepare all of her performers.

Despite the differences between Chinese and Western opera, both Reinhart and Garcia hope audiences of all generations will continue to appreciate the art.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” says Garcia of Tea. “The voices, the actors and the chorus are all together…the whole thing is important, not only focus on Oriental, on everybody [sic].”

The joy of sharing and collaboration seems universal.

“There is nothing like being able to immerse oneself in the energy of an artist and to be a part of something telling a story,” says McRae.

Tea: A Mirror of Soul opens May 4 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

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Vancouver Opera Company – http://www.vancouveropera.ca

Reprinted from The Source Newspaper.