In Search Of A Stage, Western Opera Singers Try China

Sep 6, 2011

Lesson number one: saying "thank you" in Chinese.

"Xie xie. Xie xie. Xie xie," repeats American soprano Maria McDaniel, as she struggles to pin down the elusive Chinese "x" sound.

"Too much lips going on!" is the verdict of her teacher, Katherine Chu, who was an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

For McDaniel, this workshop is the start of a linguistic journey into another culture. She's one of 20 emerging American and European singers who have recently spent a month learning to sing in contemporary Chinese operas as part of the I Sing Beijing program. It's a sign that the world's cultural focus could be shifting eastward. That shift is being helped by the Chinese government, a major funder of the program.

McDaniel says she's keen to explore China as a possible market of the future, given the dwindling opportunities for opera singers at home.

"Many prominent opera companies have closed their doors," she says. "More have had to cut down on their seasons, the number of productions. And then the number of jobs are shrinking, so that was another reason that fueled my interest in coming over here and exploring."

McDaniel is learning to sing a role from a modern Chinese opera called Chinese Orphan. At the end of the month, each singer will perform an aria at the most prestigious venue in China, Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts, an egg-shaped opera house that flanks Tiananmen Square.

A Singer's Dream

"This is a very special day for me," says Hao Jiang Tian, an affable bear of a man with a small, pointed beard. "My dream has come true."

The flamboyant Chinese opera singer has been a principal soloist at the Met for the past 19 seasons, and the I Sing Beijing program is his brainchild. He beams as he surveys the ranks of opera singers seated in front of him on the first day of a month of Chinese lessons and workshops.

He regales the group with his remarkable life story: his upbringing as the son of a conductor and a composer, his reluctance to practice piano. The day his piano teacher was arrested as a counter-revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution was "the happiest day of my life," he says.

Tian spent six years as a factory worker, discovering his true vocation only when another singer heard him outside the window, shouting up to his friend on the fifth floor. Tian arrived penniless in the U.S. nearly 30 years ago, knowing just three words of English. Within a decade, he was performing at the Met.

"I had some terrible experiences with the directors, conductors and managers, too," he says, explaining how he hopes the program will reduce the kind of discrimination he faced coming from China. "Because, still, this is Western opera, Western culture. The first rehearsal, if I don't know this conductor, director, my singing colleagues, [then] I could see a lot of question marks in their eyes: 'Hmmm, this Chinese, can he sing?'"

Despite the mistrust, contemporary Chinese music is having an ever-larger impact in the West these days. Tian has premiered in a clutch of high-profile new pieces, including The First Emperor at the Met, written by composer Tan Dun. Inside China, too, the economic boom is creating a cultural boom.

"Everybody knows the economy is really growing fast, so there's lots of money here and there," Tian says. "Every city wants to become an international city, so they build an opera house. [The] government really put in lots of money, for cultural events and developments."

A Visit To Tian's Past

With this program, Tian has literally come back to where he started. He takes the singers — and a documentary crew — to visit a Beijing boiler factory where he spent six years working on a steel-cutting machine. As the cameras roll, he stands in the cavernous machine workshop together with his old colleagues, belting out "Oh! Susannah," a forbidden American folksong. They used to sing it secretly.

The most moving moment comes when a group of young factory workers burst out singing their own factory anthem, which turns out to be Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The new Chinese lyrics include a mention of how the company is "burning its chest to warm the earth." The opera singers join in, their polished chorus providing the perfect counterpoint to the workers. The two halves of Tian's life have come together.

He's visibly emotional, as are many others in the group, including McDaniel. "This is only his second time returning here in 40 years," she says. "It's a celebration of every kind. When I walked in, I felt so emotional."

"To share a part of his journey like this, to celebrate how far he's come, is remarkable," she says.

Tian has managed to secure Chinese government funding for I Sing Beijing, and many of the big names involved are volunteering their time and expertise for free.

True to its name, the official launch of I Sing Beijing is punctuated with outbreaks of song. The program's major funder was the Hanban, which is better known for setting up Confucius Institutes to teach the Chinese language outside China.

"Chinese people are now seen as rich country bumpkins without taste or culture," Hanban Executive Director Xu Lin says. "I am trying to let the outside world know that China's 5,000 continuous years of culture is very attractive."

Developing 'A Great Respect' For Peking Opera

When it comes to understanding Chinese culture, tenor Thomas Glenn has one of the steepest learning curves. He's been assigned a much-loved Peking opera piece, The Siege of Tiger Mountain. His initial impressions of Peking opera weren't all that positive.

"From our point of view and our Western ears, it seems a very shrill and monochromatic art form," he says.

But he's had a month of lessons, including master classes with a famous Peking opera star, Jiang Qihu. Glenn readily admits that Peking opera is an enormous challenge, especially since the tessitura, or range, is very high. There's an improvisatory aspect to performance, too, and a whole new range of skills required.

"To realize these Peking opera singers study their whole lives to learn not only how to sing, but to dance, to do kung fu and their own makeup, is very impressive," he says. "I can't say that I would ever become a Peking opera singer, because it's very difficult to sing that type of music, but I certainly have a great respect for it."

At Last, A Night At The Opera

On the night of the gala performance, Glenn's performance is a huge hit with the local audience. They clap wildly, shouting, "Hao!" or "Good!" in the middle of his trickiest sections, and cheering even as he sings. Maria McDaniel also performs her aria from Chinese Orphan, with two other singers.

Ever the optimist, Hao Jiang Tian is not so much reflecting on the successes of the past weeks, but looking ahead to his next big project — and he has an inkling that Chinese Orphan may be at the heart of it.

"My dream is someday I could help to cast a whole Western cast to sing a Chinese contemporary opera," he says hopefully. "Maybe next year," he says, with a steely glint in his eye.

"That's the beauty of a dream," he says, "because every night could be different."

One man's dream of promoting cultural understanding is coalescing with a larger, official dream of showcasing modern China's cultural strengths. At the gala concert, the success of the I Sing Beijing program is clear. Nowhere more so than during the finale, which is a heartfelt rendition by the chorus of Westerners of one of China's most famous songs, "I Love You, China."

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