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About Composer-Librettist James Chiao

James Chiao was a poor fisherman in the South China Sea, now he is the composer of the highly-anticipated new musical Mannequin Man by Day, Tenor by Night. For the first time, a major American musical is written and composed by a Chinese immigrant, loosely based on James’ own life story of overcoming odds and obstacles to realize his American dream. 


Born in Guangzhou, China in 1949, James Chiao is one of the three sons of famous Chinese folk composer Fei Chiao. James grew up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution where his parents, like most intellectuals, artists and musicians, were sent to work in labor camps and James was sent to a remote island to work as a farmer and fisherman. With the help of family, Chiao was able to leave China and immigrated to the United States in 1980. With his wife Lily, he built a successful business in Buena Park, CNL Mannequins, which sells to major department stores and fashion brands such as Macy’s. While James was happy to be using his creative talents to design mannequins, he always yearned to fulfill the musical passions his parents instilled in him as a child.


Bringing music back into his life, Chiao began vocal training in 1998 and in 2001 he formed The Three Chiao Tenors with his father and brother, Ping, also a well-known tenor in China. Their concerts in the United States and China have included Italian opera, English songs and Chinese folk songs, accompanied by Western and Chinese instruments. 


James eventually earned his MFA in music from CalArts in 2017 at the age of 68. For his master’s recital, James presented several songs that were so positively received that he decided to compose an entire musical. The production soon involved the whole Chiao family. Besides being a major inspiration for the dynamic story, Lily co-wrote the lyrics for more than 25 songs. His daughter Amy took charge of scenic and prop design. His son Brian also took on the role of General Manager for the musical’s premier 10 sold-out performances at the El Portal Theatre and Rose Center.

Tenor by Night is the first major American musical with book, music and lyrics composed by a Chinese American immigrant, and the first modern American musical to reflect Asian immigrants chasing the American dream. Similar to his real-life story, James (the character) wants to balance his artistic passions with his family responsibilities.

But why 'Tenor By Night'? James explains, "In 2005, when I was vacationing with my family in Yosemite, I stood on top of a high rock and sang O sole mio. I felt great ending the song with a high note, but another tourist shouted 'Keep your day job!' as he passed by. Although he might have been joking, I felt somewhat discouraged by his remark. It inspired me to take the nickname 'Tenor By Night.' Yes, I keep my day job, but I am proudly also a Tenor By Night".

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