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The Exquisite Influence of Masks in Opera Over the Years

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Image by Rodrigo Rodriguez

Image by Rodrigo Rodriguez

Masks in Opera Aren’t New: A Look at Their Exquisite History and Influence

Over the course of history, many have donned masks when performing in the theater.

These days, face coverings have a more sinister association: The coronavirus pandemic that is plaguing the world, weighing heavily on all of our minds, but that was not always the case.

In fact, many have willing donned masks over the centuries, and this tradition spans numerous cultures.

Wearing face coverings actually goes all the way back to the customs of Ancient Greece: The place is famous for its knee-slapping comedies and tear-inducing tragedies.

You may feel reluctant to see a live play or opera if you are required to wear a mask for the safety of yourself and others, but it is essential to remember that this will almost certainly be a temporary necessity.

Perhaps it would help to remind yourself that the ancient Greeks donned elaborate masks while performing many of their masterpieces to the public.

It never hurts to reframe a situation for the better.

After all, maintaining a positive mindset is one of the best ways to remain resilient during tough times.

The Many Cultures that Incorporated Masks in the Theatre

Believe it or not, various cultures have frequently used masks to add a certain level of depth to their performances over the years: They are common in Japanese culture, in many African plays, and, of course, in the famous Greek dramas.

The icon of many actors is the sad and happy masks: A common emblem tattooed affectionately on the arms of many a theatergoer and dedicated thespian.

The Function of Masks

A while ago, masks were actually used to convey gender. This is arguably a controversial purpose for them, but one that occurred nonetheless.

They were created to project a certain mood to the audience that the human face could not—If you were in the back row of the theater, you could see the exaggerated expression from afar!

The History of Masks in the Theatre

During the 15th century, the commedia dell'arte originated in Italy. Masks were used to emphasize the features of elaborate, eccentric characters as they enacted hilarious tales for large crowds.

The Famous Masks of Comedy & Tragedy

Have you ever seen a thespian donning a t-shirt portraying two masks—one happy with the other side, side by side?

If you have, this image is likely a tribute to the long Greek tradition of comedies and tragedies that make many a theatergoer slap their knees with laughter or cry uncontrollably into their palms as they are witnessing intense tragedies or hilarious comedies of errors.

The human condition plagues us all, and we must embrace our good and bad sides if we ever want to make progress in this world.

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Masks have been a catalyst for actors to embrace the ups and downs of humanity in their performances over the decades.

They have long been a part of theater, and actors wear them because they want to portray a certain mood to their audience: It is far easier to convey sadness or sorrow to audience members seated in the back row than it is to illustrate the same emotion with the human face to folks who are quite a distance away.

It is rumored that the use of masks, which became so prevalent in Greek culture, was a result of the worship of Dionysus: The God of Wine and Ecstasy.

False faces are intrinsically linked to the human condition and long have been in the tradition of drama that so many of us adore.

Masks & Mummery

Mummery was used to greet the new year and "ward off evil spirits" in many cultures for quite some time. The term actually stemmed from the old French word "mommer."

It is fascinating to think that this art form stemmed from a fear and a genuine belief that donning a mask would actually protect one from the sinister forces plaguing this world.

One might even say the tradition was slightly jarring.

These days, mummery is often practiced, although it's usually performed as an element in passion plays or pantomime rather than a sacred rite.

Masks Are Used When Actors Play Non-Human Creatures

Masks have long been used to convey animals that are also characters. This tradition is rather enchanting: The role of an actor starring in Lion King and donning the appropriate face-covering comes to mind.

In the Middle Ages, there were many dark plays involving demons. As a result, plenty of actors actually donned sinister masks to portray these evil creatures.

Ironically, the demon masks usually enchanted the audience instead of terrifying them because they were so beautifully crafted.

Masks in the Modern Day

In the present day, masks are increasingly rare in theater unless actors are portraying animals. However, some directors will actually engage their thespians in renditions of commedia dell'arte pieces and Greek plays.

Wearing these theatrical false faces can be quite a challenge for many an actor and actress considering that they are used to solely utilizing their own faces to portray human emotion: Thespians used to be trained specifically to perform with the large mask over their own semblance, but this is rarely the case nowadays.

Masks in Chinese Opera

Masks are common in Chinese operas: They are also used as an extension of the human condition in this form of theater.

This is quite the metaphor: Masks portray our feelings on the inside or conceal them.

Many a playwright could pen a masterpiece about such an occurrence.

How to Embrace Your Mask during the Pandemic

These days, the vast majority of us are completely terrified when it comes to going out in public, and donning a face covering can feel like the epitome of inconvenience, particularly if you are attending your favorite play where you would like to allow yourself to laugh and cry with your fellow theatergoers and not have to conceal your facial expressions.

Fortunately, masks have long been part of acting and operatic traditions, so it may help you to simply reframe the situation and remind yourself that, at the end of the day, donning a face-covering while attending a live performance is an odd way of embracing the thespian spirit.

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