The Chao opera is a kind of Chinese local opera, popular in the regions of Eastern Guangdong and Southern Fujian. Evident from history and the scripts, the Chao opera began in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, is a stream of Southern operas, perfect in its singing techniques and storylines. Traditional titles can be grouped into the Southern Stories which became popular from Sung and Yuan, the Detective Stories from Ming and Qing, and the Mass Operas inspired by folklores or local events. Examples of the former include ‘Po Gao Story’, ‘Jing Chai Story’, ‘Pi Pa Story’, ‘Jiao Pai Story’, among the others. The well-known ‘Working Girl and the Officer’ tells of a son of a government official getting to know and fall in love with a famous singer on his way to official examinations, and the twists and turns that follows after his father finds out the relationship. It was greatly liked by Chao folks. Later the folklore story ‘Li Jing Story’ (or ‘ Chen San and Lady Wu’) was most favoured. It is believed that this opera took place at the end of Ming: A Quanzhou person Chen San was traveling with his sister-in-law to Eastern Guangdong, as he came across Lady Wu, the daughter of local official Huang Jiu Lang, while he was at a New Year market. It was love at first sight. However, a local tycoon’s son Lin Da who was after the beauty of Lady Wu, offered to marry her which was quickly accepted by Official Huang. But the love of Lady Wu was Chen San. After much difficulty, she managed to run away with Chen San before the scheduled wedding and form their own love nest.
Chao operas had a unique way of retaining the system of ‘Sung by One, Echoed by Many’, together with duets, trios, and all singing at the end. There are also Melodies of ‘Light 3 6′, ‘Heavy 3 6′, ‘Living 5′, ‘Counter Thread’, ‘Light 3 Heavy 6′, expressing various emotions and spirits.
The music is measured by is ‘boards’, or rhythm and speed. They are flexible in that a tune may have the ‘Head Board’, ‘Two Boards’, ‘Three Boards’, ‘Roasted Beats’, ‘Pick Flowers’ and variations of the like. By the combinations of the beating, a piece can by ‘Big Gong’, ‘Small Gong’, ‘Su Gong’ and so on. Chao Operas are known to be fine and detailed, complete with music expression, has earned the reputation of ‘Southern Flowers.’
The first characteristic of Chao opera performance is that as it follows tradition, it is flexible with form. A role will have its specific performance format. Secondly, it is not restricted by its look but strives to have the spirit, an actor works to act out the inside emotions and thoughts. Third, it takes stories from everyday living, as can be easily seen with stories of the Comic Actor and the Main Actress. The three characteristics interact and produce interesting performance effects. In addition, props used in Chao operas include the ladder, the chair, the fan, and the wooden stick of the Comic Actor, and the handerchief, the umbrella, and the lantern of the Main Actress, etc.
Although the Chao Opera is a native product of Chinese culture, it has gained overseas popularity, as Chaoshan poeple are found all over the world. Technology has helped. The advent of the movie, videotape, and laser disc, causes Chao Operas to be played everywhere, all the time.
There are approximately 60 or so professional Chao Opera theatrical troupes, many are the amateurs or formed locally by the villagers. In the past decades troupes formed overseas have been: Hong Kong 6 troupes, Thailand 31, Singaore/Malaysia 14, and 1 in Vietnam and the USA, respectively. Among them the Chinese Guangdong Chao Theatrical Troupe and Shantao Tourism Artistic Troupe are best in performance and are highly appraised by China and overseas Chao people.