How do you sing an aria in Mandarin? A group of 20 American and Canadian singers are learning how as part of a special opera program in Beijing this summer.
By NBC News’ Bo Gu
BEIJING – For decades, aspiring opera stars from around the world would head to Europe to learn about arias and the traditions of bel canto. But now, a new generation is looking East, and learning how to sing in Mandarin, not just Italian or German.
This summer, 20 young American and Canadian opera singers descended on this city for intensive training in the Western and Chinese opera traditions as part of the “I Sing Beijing” program.
Sponsored by the Confucius Institute under China’s Education Ministry, the program is the brainchild of Hao Jiang Tian, one of the few Chinese singers to become a regular fixture on the international opera scene.
Born in Beijing to a musical family in the mid- 1950s, Tian lived through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. His father was a conductor and his mother was a composer, but when they were sent to a reeducation camp, Tian was forced to work in a factory. Years later, he got back to music and was part of the first generation of Chinese singers to go overseas. For the past 19 seasons, he has been the principal soloist at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He wrote a one-man show “From Mao to the Met” based on his autobiography that was broadcast across the United States on PBS.
“For 20-something years, we have been helping Chinese young singers to go to the West, to find scholarships for them, to find agents to hear them, to help them stand on a Western opera stage. But today is different,” Tian said after a recent session where he was teaching an American tenor how to sing a popular Chinese opera song, “I love you, China.”
Learning how to sing in Mandarin
The 15 American and five Canadian singers participating in the program were selected after two rounds of competitive auditions. None of them had visited China before. Now that they are here, they have embraced the cultural exchange they’ve found on and off the stage.
“Everybody cooks on the street, everybody sells on the street, the whole life of the city is outside in the street,” said Thomas Glenn, a long-time Kung Fu fan from Canada. “It’s exciting, it’s surprising.”
Bai Mu / Bai mu - Imaginechina
View of the National Centre for the Performing Arts at night in Beijing.
For the singers, the most challenging part is learning to sing in a completely different language. They take an intensive two-hour Mandarin course each day before their rehearsal.
“It’s really hard…. A lot of Chinese vowels are sung or spoken in at least more of a closed mouth, and that doesn’t really work with the Western style, so there has to be a sort of compromise,” Glenn said after his afternoon rehearsal.
But for other singers, like Julia Metzler, performing in another language is just part of opera. “The sounds are foreign, but they are no more difficult than singing in less frequent operatic languages, like Czech.”
Investing in culture
China has invested heavily in building large performance halls as cultural showcases over the last several years, from Beijing to Guangzhou.
The National Center for the Performing Arts – a $414 million project that Beijingers nicknamed “The Egg” – has held over 3,800 performances by both Chinese and foreign artists, entertaining more than 2 million since its opened three years ago. And the city of Guangzhou spent over $200 million on its opera house, which was designed by the London-based avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid.
“In the past five years, over 50 international-level theaters have been built all over China, in big cities, even small cities,” said Tian. “All those city governments, they all want to build up connections with the world, especially with the Western countries, so how do you do it? They all think about the cultural exchange. It’s the best way to make connections.”
China’s influence on Western classical music is growing, with recent international premiers including Zhang Yimou’s “Turandot,” Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor,” and Guo Wenjing’s “Poet Li Bai.”
Chinese-themed performances like “Madame Mao” or “Nixon in China” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera last February also have attracted attention from international opera fans.
Big-budget operas in China, like the “Road to Revival” and “Mulan Psalms,” mobilized the nation’s best actors and singers to perform, including Peng Liyuan, who could be China’s next first lady. (She’s married to Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to replace President Hu Jintao in 2012.)
The recent debut of a Chinese version of the hit “Mama Mia!” opened another chapter – bringing a Broadway classic to Chinese fans.
Catherine Chu, program director of “I Sing Beijing,” described the future of Western opera in China as “a vibrant scene…. They are developing new audiences. They are hungry for it.”
Not surprisingly, Tian agrees.
“Opera is becoming more and more popular in China. I’m happy to see at least 80 percent of the audience with black hair,” said Tian. “I think the Chinese audience is ready for international level operas.”
The program will culminate with a performance at Beijing’s “Egg” on Aug. 18, accompanied by the China National Symphony Orchestra.