Liao Chiung-chih (廖瓊枝) has been singing Taiwanese gezai opera for nearly 60 years. Tonight she will look back on her life in a unique operatic autobiography in cooperation with the National Chinese Orchestra (NCO, 台灣國家國樂團). Over her long career, she has earned a reputation as being the best performer of the “sorrowful woman” (苦旦) role in gezai opera, and is highly respected as one of the pioneers of formal education in the art of gezai performance.
“She has never acquired the fame of performers like Yang Li-hua (楊麗花), who developed her career through television,” said Shih Ju-fang (施如芳), the scriptwriter of tonight’s performance. (Yang became a household name in the 1970s as a performer and producer of opera for television.) “In the minds of most people, gezai stars are television stars, but Liao has always performed on stage, and so she has never had the same level of exposure. At the same time, this has given her the chance to develop her art to a higher level.”
Liao, 73, is a diminutive woman with an intensely self-effacing bearing, and working with conductor Wen Yi-ren (溫以仁) at the NCO rehearsal room earlier this week, she seemed almost to vanish among the crowd of musicians and their instruments. That is, until she started to sing. The power of her voice is not what it once was, as even Shih admits, but in the intensity of feeling that she communicates, she outshone other performers and easily held her own against the swelling cadences of the score, which mixes Chinese-themed orchestral music (think Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto with Chinese instruments) and the traditional gezai musical ensemble.
Liao’s style of singing is also unusual, taking songs at a much slower pace than is usual in gezai) opera. “For many performers, the song is simply a means of getting the words of the opera across, but Liao focuses on the sound,” Shih said, referring to the amazingly expressive tone of Liao’s singing. Shih tells of various instances of people moved to tears by Liao’s singing even though they could not understand the Taiwanese lyrics.
When asked why she favors the roles for the “sorrowful woman” part, Liao looked enigmatic and replied, “It may have something to do with my background. I simply prefer the sorrowful roles.” Certainly, there has been much sorrow in her life, and tonight’s opera focuses on a single incident, the death of her mother, that Liao repeatedly returns to when telling her story. It is an old story: her mother was the mistress of a young man from a wealthy family who was unable to marry her. Abandoned with a young child of 2, she took a risky journey to Turtle Island (龜山島) off Taiwan’s east coast and drowned during the crossing. Raised by her grandmother, Liao, like many pretty girls of poor family, drifted into the world of traveling theater troupes.
Recalling her childhood, Liao said, speaking in a precise Mandarin that is very much a second language to her, that she endured the painful physical training of the theater for the adulation of the crowd, and by 21, she had become a principal performer. “Although I was the lead, I knew nothing of bringing out emotion in my performance. My breakthrough came from my teacher Chen Hsiu-feng (陳秀鳳), the owner of the Lung Hsiao Feng Opera Troupe (龍霄鳳劇團). She told me: ‘You should sing as though you are being beaten.’” In listening to Liao’s story of her early days in opera, she was clearly no stranger to beatings, and from that time on, she developed her talent for expressing sorrowful emotions. “When you tap into those emotions of being a victim of injustice, it can be hard to express yourself. The ability to vocalize is where the artistry comes in. It is what I worked at,” Liao said.
Liao is unusual in being one of the very few gezai opera stars to earn fame in playing female roles — conventionally, the big stars of gezai are women like Yang who specialize in male roles.
Liao now dedicates herself to teaching, and despite her exulted reputation among the gezai cognoscenti, spends much of her time in grassroots education in primary schools and community centers around the country. She places enormous importance in preserving the tradition that nurtured her, both in the training of professionals and also in the cultivation of a new generation of audience. “When I started teaching, many people would tell me of their memories of being taken to watch gezai opera by their grandparents,” she said. “This is what inspired me to direct my effort toward the very young.”
Liao will retire from performance next year, and the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center (國立中正文化中心) is already planning a farewell program, but the current autobiographic performance, which features Liao in a dialogue with her younger self, performed by Cao Ya-lan (曹雅嵐), offers an opportunity for Liao to tell her story through the medium that sustained her through life.
Liao’s autobiographical performance, titled Liao Chiung-chih and Death and Love of My Mother: The Reminiscence of the Diva Daughter (廖瓊枝與臺灣國家國樂團 — 凍水牡丹) will be performed as a semi-staged concert at the National Concert Hall tonight at 7:30pm. Tickets are NT$400 to NT$1,600 and are available through NTCH ticketing.
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