Sure of both his abilities and his artistic mission, James Chiao once stood atop a rock in Yosemite National Park and belted out the operatic aria “O Sole Mio,” so excited at being “one with nature.”
“I thought my singing was so fantastic, my best moment,” Chiao said recently.
He further believed he was communing solely with nature, only to then hear an unseen fellow hiker shout back, “Keep your day job.”
“I talked to my children and asked them what that means,” he said. “They said, ‘It means you’re not good yet. You better not choose music as your career.’ ”
Chiao will premiere his musical, “Tenor By Night,” at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, where it will run from Aug. 17 to 26, before moving on to North Hollywood in September. The play, with music and book by Chiao, stars Kevin Gino as “James,” a somewhat-fictionalized version of the playwright.
Like his real-life counterpart, the James of the play came to America from China and opened a mannequin warehouse. But unlike the Real McCoy, “Tenor By Night” sees James’ desire to become a professional singer irritate his wife so much that she kicks him out of the house.
“I’m a lucky guy. My life is very successful, no trauma. Our marriage has been happy for 32 years,” Chiao says of his wife, Lily, with whom he has two adult children.
However, theater requires drama, and thus one of Chiao’s advisers at the California Institute of Arts recommended that “Tenor By Night” include the domestic difficulties for the fictional James. The rest of the narrative, he said, followed easily, including a musical number wherein the mannequins come alive for a dance.
As fantastical as are the elements of “Tenor By Night,” Chiao’s actual biography could be the subject of several plays. Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1949, he studied at an English-language university before moving to the U.S. in 1980 for courses at El Camino College in Torrance and Cal State Long Beach.
Despite coming from a musical family, Chiao at first eschewed arts studies of his own, largely due to the backlash of the Cultural Revolution in China that sent his own parents to a forced labor camp.
“I was planning to go to college to study science … but my plan was shattered because I had to work in the countryside,” Chiao said of the great closure of institutions of higher learning in China during the revolution — and which effectively kept him out of college until he was almost 30.
After graduating from CSULB, Chiao worked first as a computer programmer before deciding to open a mannequin supply firm, CNL Mannequins. He claims to have never sung much until the close of the millennium, when he was entering his 50s.
“I decided to go back to school to study music at CalArts. Yes, it’s kind of strange, but I always had a young heart,” Chiao said, again chuckling amiably. (He was often asked by security guards at the campus if he was faculty.) “I thought it’s never too late to learn. An old dog can learn new tricks.”
Chiao commuted several days a week from his home in Cerritos to Valencia — 90 minutes each way — for music school. Lily, ever supportive, took on more of the responsibilities at the mannequin shop in his absences.
“Most of my fellow students [were] young, energetic and they have the future,” he said. “My advantage is I have experienced a lot in life.”
In 2013 Chiao decided it was time to stage his own vocal recital. In transliterated Chinese, the show was called “The Boss Chiao Concert,” but its rather apt English name was “Tenor By Night.” The name was inspired by Chiao’s moment singing to the heavens atop the rock in Yosemite.
“I thought, ‘I’ll keep my day job, but I sing at night. Maybe I’ll become better,’” Chiao said. “I got very discouraged, but I always look at things positively. I’ll call myself ‘Tenor by Night.’”
With encouragement from his CalArts advisers, Chiao began in earnest on his musical in 2017, workshopping songs and lyrics with professors and musical colleagues. A front-page story in the Orange County Register boosted his public profile considerably — not bad for a man nearing 70 who was a complete unknown to the theater community.
Since beginning his studies, Chiao was inspired to embrace his family history. Chiao’s father, Fei Chiao, was a famous songwriter in China who was able to once again apply his trade after the country liberalized in the late ’70s.
With his father and brother Ping, Chiao formed Three Chiao Tenors in the early 2000s. The trio toured China unti Fei Chiao’s 2011 death, at which point he was replaced in the group by his grandson, Brian.
“My mother wasn’t able to really go back to singing [in China] because she was labeled a ‘riotist,’ which is a counterrevolutionary. Her career was totally ruined,” Chiao said.
However, after coming to America, Chiao’s mother founded her own choir, which she directed with her husband by her side.
Chiao emphasizes the greatest takeaway of both his life story and his musical is that it’s never too late to follow your passions.
“Everything [for me] is late. I started my business in 1994, and I was already 46 years old,” he said. “What would I say to myself at that [earlier] point? I would say so much can happen in one’s lifetime, so we should not waste [it]. We should do more and more to enrich your own life and other people’s lives. To make contributions for society.”
If You Go
What: “Tenor By Night”
When: Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 2 p.m., Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 26 at 2 p.m.
Where: Rose Center Theater, 14140 All American Way, Westminster