Forecast Festival: Peny Chan

Finding and Redefining the Concubine’s Voice

Malaysian singer and performer Peny Chan casts a female gaze on the Peking Opera and finds her voice within it by teasing out the tensions between tradition and the contemporary moment.

Text by Song Tae Chong
Photos by Camille Blake

Peny Chan, 鳳殞 (Sorrow of the Phoenix)

Vocal artists Peny Chan and her Forecast mentor Rully Shabara both use voice as a material to renegotiate the historical conditions of language and music. They do so, each in their own individual practice, by deconstructing traditional norms and re-casting the human voice as a critique of history, context, and gender performance. Their process of fine-tuning Chan’s project for Forecast, entitled 鳳殞 (Sorrow of the Phoenix), suggests a paradigm of remaking both the production and the performance of the voice, emphasizing oral and aural difference and individuality, and normalizing these practices as a creative and generative gesture.

A common thread for both musicians is their shared conviction that the shape of language is often perceived as difference, especially within the binary of East and West. This difference manifests in intonation, melodic structure, and pitch, among other things, underscoring a distinct aesthetic and aural experience of the human voice. How, then, do these two artists work within and beyond these contexts? How do they create unique forms of expression that are no longer strictly tethered to history, language, and traditional gender roles and representations? Indonesian musician and artist Rully Shabara’s practice is rooted in experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what is individual and collective voice. Within his practice and teaching, the human voice is first and foremost a malleable material, with a complex set of vocal ranges, expressions, and textures. It is a medium that can push against fixed genres and historicities, decontextualized as pure human soundscapes. “Voice can be a gateway to find one’s true sound,” he says, arguing that voice itself is a language that can be explored and developed into new ideas and concepts as a tool of discovery.

His explorations center on stripping away the constructs of existing language, such as grammar, cultural meaning, and codes to abstract the voice as a central mode of expression. But there is a dual emphasis here: voice is also a necessary part of hearing, and the act of listening. Thus, both listening and vocalization are part of a methodology of creating outside of boundaries and established ideas about sound, language, and music. Meanwhile, Malaysian polyglot performer Peny Chan applied a similar form of questioning to the highly coded artform of the Peking Opera. Characterized by its formulaic and symbolic style, the Peking Opera was inscribed in 2010 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But that didn’t stop Chan from seeking to update and redefine one of its iconic female characters—the concubine.

The Peking Opera’s style of singing follows its own strict aesthetic system of language that does not bear a relationship to vernacular Chinese. Its librettos are composed according to a set of rules that prize form and rhyme. Archetypal and stereotypical gender-normative characters and historical plotlines are the primary source materials in its classic repertoire, which tells stories of history, politics, society, and daily life that aspire to inform as they entertain. Performance in the Peking Opera is characterized by a fixed style rich with symbolic allusions, in which performers follow an established choreography for movements of their hands, eyes, torsos, and feet.

Traditionally, stage settings and props are kept to a minimum, yet costumes are flamboyant, and the exaggerated facial make-up uses concise symbols, colors, and patterns to portray characters’ personalities and social identities in simplified, archetypal forms. Exaggerated facial expressions allude to the interior life of the character, without having to explicate them through the narrative form of the Peking Opera. Historically, female characters such as the concubine were played by men, since women were not allowed to perform until approximately 1870, depriving them of an actual voice and an authentic means of representation. For decades, it perpetuated an instantiation of gendered voice that is constructed outside of lived experience.

Through her project 鳳殞 (Sorrow of the Phoenix), Chan innovates the genre’s historic conventions, especially its depictions of gender, and specifically within the trope and archetype of the female concubine. Notions of individual agency and the power of voice are at the core of Chan’s reinterpretation. Chan claims that she does not seek to completely break away from the traditions, which date back to the late eighteenth century, but rather to tease out and explore the tensions and breakages between tradition and the contemporary moment. It is there, between the cracks, that she found her own voice. In doing so, she also gives agency to the concubine character. In her restructuring of the traditional methodologies of Peking Opera, Chan uses south-east Asian languages and dialects to perform traditional operatic librettos, transforming both the meaning of the texts as well as the audience’s aural expectations.

For Chan, this intervention is political. “Because I wish to fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment through my creation,” she says. Her practice is rooted in her upbringing and her sense that identity is often constructed outside of the normative experience of culture and cultural hegemony. “I realized as a Chinese person growing up in Malaysia, that I should have connected to my roots and embraced my own culture.” That is how she came to research and practice the Peking Opera singing style. “Through research and practice, I came up with a long-term methodology: Revisit, Reinterpret, Recreate.”

The intersection between Shabara and Chan’s practice occurs here, in the transformative moment in which the individual voice can serve as a form of critique and resistance to traditional and outmoded methods of representation. It pushes the boundaries of language and expression while simultaneously advocating for the individual voice to push against history. For Chan, Shabara’s mentorship offered “more possibilities to develop my skills and creative thinking.”

“Individual voice is as important as collective voice,” she adds. “Because we need an individual voice to speak up and inspire our environment to become the collective voice. My creation will hopefully influence others to fight together.”

Song Tae Chong PhD is a Berlin-based educator and curator. Currently a Trustee of the Martin Parr Foundation, Song focuses on praxis-based curatorial work and theoretical practice. She is part-time faculty at NYU, where she specializes in postcolonial visual culture and history, as well as the theory of photography. As the former Director of Milk Gallery in NYC, Song mounted over 40 exhibitions and numerous special projects. Her practice includes curation, zine and book publishing, writing, research, and exhibition design.