A tribute and a fitting finale for a retiring diva
There The 74-year-old operatic diva Liao Chiung-chih, a name that is almost synonymous with Taiwan’s gezai opera (drama of songs), will take command of the stage at the National Theatre Hall today throughout the weekend and give all present a glimpse of what a true diva is.
The script of the opera piece, The Virtuous Mother of General Tao Kan, is not a pale copy from past performances, but a genuine creation written and crafted by Professor Tseng Yung-yi and Professor Tsai Hsin-hsin. The drama is one of the very few gezai opera performances that center on the role of the female lead, the dan character, and Liao will play the lead heroine in eight out of nine scenes, starting from a very young xiaodan to a 90-year-old laodan.
This is not the first time Liao performs on a national theatre stage, and her past performances, such as The Reminiscence of the Diva Daughter, were always box office hits. But this time, with The Virtuous Mother of General Tao Kan will come Liao’s official announcement of retirement from theatre. It will be the last chance for Taiwanese opera buffs to see the diva in her own distinct, professional singing style and acting.
“It makes me sad every time I think of leaving my audience and stage for good,” Liao told the Taiwan News in an interview on November 16. “But the stage demands much physical effort, and I want to retire before I am too old to make perfect portrayal of a character,” she said, “I will focus my career on teaching Taiwanese opera.”
By physical effort, Laio meant she and other actors and actresses have been rehearsing three to four hours daily basis since the end of August, and she is almost always on stage, and stays up every night to memorize her lines until 2 a.m.
“My memory is not as good as before, so I have had to spend extra time on remembering the lines,” she said. “I find the rehearsals very tiring, but my willpower makes everything happen.”
A story with two legends
The Virtuous Mother of General Tao Kan, according to scriptwriter Tsai Hsin-hsin, portrays the life stories of Tao Kan and his mother, especially focused on the personality of the mother, whose resolve and self-discipline greatly influenced Tao when he served as government official in the Jin Dynasty of China.
Tao (259-334) was most known for his integrity and diligence as a government official. His mother had to raise him alone because his father passed away when Tao was a child. Tao started as a low-ranking official but his humble family background stopped him from being promoted to a higher rank.
There was one time when Tao’s mother had to cut her hair and sell it in order to buy good food for an official named Fan Kei who visited Tao. History books have it that Tao maintained his simple and disciplined lifestyle after he was elevated to a higher position in the government through the recommendation of Fan. It is believed that the success of Tao was the direct result of his mother’s teaching.
Tsai said she saw Liao in the character of Tao’s mother when she wrote the script for the diva, and that the plot of the drama sort of mirrors Liao’s own real personal stories. Tsai had spent more than one year writing lyrical lines in Holo language for the opera.
Liao, the recipient of a prestigious national arts award in 1998, lost her parents at the age of two and was sent to a professional Taiwanese opera troupe to learn gezai opera at the age of 12. The following year, Liao’s only family member, her grandmother, passed away.
Taiwanese opera troupes in the early days were similar to today’s orphanages or nursing centers because children from poor families were sent to the troupes to learn the vernacular art form of Taiwan, and while the children received training, their parents could stay with the troupe who provided them with meals.
Despite her petite size, Liao has a powerful voice. She was trained to do female lead roles after going through three years and four months of strict training and harsh scolding.
She kept her professional standards high despite two troubled relationships and the hardships of a single mother raising four children. The years that Liao began performing Taiwanese opera lead roles between the late 1940s and early 1950s, coincided with the golden years of Taiwanese opera.
The diva is best known for her playing tragic female roles. With her superb acting, singing skills, and wealth of experience in the school of hard knocks, Liao is able to invest real emotions in a role that involves weeping, her racked sobbing often getting the women in the audience crying along with her.
But the audience will not be seeing Liao’s signature weeping and singing style this time because the opera focuses more on the inner qualities of the female lead and on filial piety and integrity, traditional values that are gradually disappearing in Taiwan’s society.
Much to see and feel
Liao said that the scene when Tao’s mother cut her hair in exchange for money is one of several climaxes in the drama. In Chinese culture, one should prevent his/her hair and body from being hurt because they are given by one’s parents. Therefore, when Tao’s mother had to make a decision between keeping her hair and preparing a banquet for her son’s friend, the inner struggle of the heroine is expressed through the seven-word rhymed lines (the most popular tune in gezai opera) and her facial expressions.
“Refined acting, deep emotions, and singing of the performers make gezai opera different from other forms of art,” the diva said during the interview.
The actors’ movements in Peking opera and Taiwanese opera are very much alike, but Liao advises the audience to closely listen to the singing and observe the eyes and facial expressions of Taiwanese opera performers, and they will discover the sharp difference between the two.
Mainland Chinese actors alternate between falsetto and their natural voices, but gezai singers always use their natural voices. And unlike Peking opera performers whose acting and movements are more stylized or standardized, gezai opera allows its actors and actresses to bring their acting into full play.
Looking back on her 60-year gezai theatre career, Liao worries about the future of classical Taiwanese opera. “Until now we don’t have a national Taiwanese opera troupe that has full time performers with full time pay; I blame myself for being too poor to help set up such a troupe.”
She said that in Taiwan, gezai supporting actors and actresses have to work in different troupes to make ends meet. The lack of proper training and the many variations in the way of directing gezai operas mean that audiences nowadays have fewer chances to see actors play classical movements, such as the use of flowing sleeves.
“It’s a good thing to have new, modern interpretations of the Taiwanese opera, but they should remain rooted in classical training and traditional movements,” said Liao.
The Virtuous Mother of General Tao Kan will be staged in National Theatre Hall from today to November 22. The drama features a wide array of famous Taiwanese opera performers including Tang Mei-yun, Shih Hui-chun, and Hsiao-mi. The drama is directed by popular Peking opera lead actor and impresario Tsao Fu-yung.