JB troupe joins Teochew Opera Festival

My forays into Teochew opera, especially those with access to backstage activities like rehearsals as well as makeup and hairdressing for the actors, was through the help of my Teochew opera-performer friend, Madam Heng Teo Luang.

Some of the main characters in the Teochew opera,
Golden Flower Maiden, with Madam Heng Teo Luang,
as Liuyong [2nd from Right]
Madam Heng, who is multi-lingual in Chinese dialects, Mandarin, Japanese and English, is not only passionate about Teochew opera but also an accomplished actor – particularly in playing the role of a poor scholar-turned-magistrate.

[In traditional Teochew opera, females play male roles in these musical dramas.]

She was instrumental in opening the backstage door for me and helping me understand the art of Teochew opera by carefully explaining in English, not just the meanings of words and actions but also dramatic details of costumes and characters.

Growing up in our grandparents’ home, I had my earliest experience of Teochew opera from listening to Ah Kong or grandfather’s Long-Playing vinyl records.

I don’t understand Ah Kong’s Teochew opera, but I can identify its sound when compared against grandmother’s choice of Cantonese opera.

Madam Heng [Left] in the role of a
poor scholar with the well-bred "Maiden"
Through Madam Heng, I had first-hand Teochew opera experiences and the privilege to share these in many published stories including, Teochew Traditions (April 2012), Those Opera Days (Feb 2013) and Art of Teochew Entertainment (May 2015).

The rich Teochew culture and heritage in Johor Baru earned its name as Little Swatow because most of the Teochew people who settled here originated from Swatow in China.

So fascinated was I in JB’s Teochew culture and heritage that I also published a story on Johor Baru, Our Little Swatow in my second book, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People.

To support this story, I used a photograph of Madam Heng – performing her dramatic role of a scholar in a Teochew opera – on Page 7 to illustrate how Teochew culture continues to flourish in Johor Baru.

Recently Madam Heng told me that she was going to perform in a Teochew opera for the Fifth International Teochew Opera Festival held in Swatow, China, this coming October, and I was all ears.

As I quizzed her about this, she revealed that in late March 2019, the festival organisers contacted her and extended an official invitation for a troupe in Johor to participate in this international opera festival, planned from Oct 28 to 31, that would involve participants from 43 countries.

The greedy sister-in-law [Left] and
her merchant husband [Right]
Several troupes in Malaysia were also invited and from Johor, Madam Heng, along with her friends in the Johor Baru Chao Yang Amateur Opera Troupe, were proud to accept the invitation.

Rehearsals were already in full swing, held at Taman Pelangi in premises generously sponsored by Chairman of the Small Merchants Association, Koh Peng Chia.

Then Madam Heng introduced me to Koh and Lim Lee Lee, Vice-President of the Johor Baru Chao Yang Amateur Opera Troupe, who shared more details of the coming International Teochew Opera Festival with me.

While I sipped my ginger-lemongrass tea, I listened (with a touch of nostalgia) to the Teochew twang as they conferred among each other before Madam Heng translated the info into English for me.

As they patiently answered my questions, I began to understand that this opera troupe comprised amateur actors who share a passion for Teochew opera and were committed to embark on a challenge to perform a full-length traditional opera.

To do this, an accomplished Beijing qualified, opera director from China, Linjia – now based in Singapore, working with renowned performing arts schools – was engaged to guide the troupe in the finer points of traditional Teochew opera.

A low-ranking but kind magistrate
who provides comic relieve in the opera
An amateur opera actor in Singapore, Quek Wen Wei, was also coaching the troupe and helping with the actors’ make-up.

Madam Heng confirmed that the opera will be performed to recorded music and it was a great challenge for the actors because they have to pay close attention to each line of music to get the cue to start singing or speaking their parts.

With her vast experience in performing Teochew opera, Madam Heng should know what it would take for each actor to know his or her part so well that they should be prepared to sing or speak on cue or risk messing up the entire scene.

Almost all the amateur actors in the troupe have day jobs so they are only able to have rehearsals in the evening, often late into the night, to polish their parts – not just in singing but also in acting their roles.

For me, it was interesting how these actors are inspiring each other with their commitment and determination to keep this traditional performing art alive.

“So what is the title or name of the story/opera your troupe will perform?” I asked.

It is an opera entitled, Jin Hua Niu, a Teochew phrase literally translated as, “Golden Flower Maiden.”

Madam Heng, dressed in her finery after the
poor scholar had achieved an education,
passed the imperial exam to finally
become a respected magistrate
This opera, I was told, is one of the most traditional Teochew operas that have often been performed by Teochew opera artistes over some 40 years after the fall of Communist China.

Its script and lyrics have been preserved through generations and remained unchanged and authentic in an opera filled with songs and speeches that only the brave would rise to the challenge to perform it.

Madam Heng will be playing a lead role as the poor scholar, Liuyong, who would leave his hometown to pursue a coveted education and pass the imperial exam to eventually become a magistrate.

In the feudal lord system, there are peasants/workers, merchants and then scholars who desire to achieve the rank of magistrate.

There are various scenes in this opera but the “Maiden” would take the lead in every scene as the spirit of the “Golden Flower Maiden” runs through the entire opera.

They compared Teochew opera to other types of Chinese opera and explained that Teochew opera is easily acceptable because audiences like how the story always ends happily-ever-after, in spite of all the ups and downs and hardships.

There are some 19 characters in the opera with a crew that includes props and costume managers, hairdressers, makeup artistes and administrative team members.

Madam Heng has her own collection of opera costumes, complete with headgear, shoes and accessories which she bought from China, but new costumes were needed for various roles in the Golden Flower Maiden opera and these are also sourced from China.

Some of the cast in the Golden Flower Maiden and members of the crew, after a rehearsal 
In addition to the costumes, funds were also needed for the return air fares and general expenses for the cast and crew heading to Swatow for the Opera Festival.

Koh said one of the ways to raise funds was by publishing a souvenir magazine for this event with the help of sponsors and donations, both individual and corporate.

A fund-raising Chinese dinner is also being organized at Meido Restaurant in Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, held on Sunday, October 20 where diners can enjoy dinner with a preview of the entire show presented in a two-and-half-hour Teochew opera.

This Dinner with Teochew opera is a treat for fans of Teochew opera as it is a rare opportunity to enjoy a full-length traditional opera being performed in JB in the 21st century.

Dinner tables for 10 pax each are priced at RM1,000 only.

For table reservations and enquiries, Tel: +6016 718 8626 or send email to: simhuingoh@gmail.com

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