I SING BEIJING’s American Debut to the Western Opera World

By Chiu-Ti Jansen
I SING BEIJING US debut performance at Alice Tully Hall, NYC, 2/16/13. Photo by Chris Lee Chris Lee

Thomas Glenn singing “Happy Spring Awakening.” Photo: Chris Lee.

NEW YORK - Opera singers, regardless of their nationalities and language proficiency, are accustomed to singing in languages other than their mother tongue: Italian, German, French and English. So why can’t they sing in Mandarin? On 16 February, I SING BEIJING, a groundbreaking initiative that brought more than twenty opera singers from seven countries to sing in Mandarin, held its American debut to a full house at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. 

As three young singers from Italy, Mexico and the United States opened the concert in perfectly understandable Mandarin, with Ode to the Yellow River, an epic eulogy of China’s national symbol, I found myself in tears. When I studied Chaucer, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Flaubert and Botticelli as a Yale graduate student, I always wondered: when would my professors and classmates be able to talk back (even in English) to me about Bai Juyi, Cao Xueqin and Bada Shanren? As my late father would say: “In your lifetime.”

I SING BEIJING team performing an encore at the Lincoln Center. Photo: Chris Lee.

In August 2011 while in Beijing I read in a local newspaper that Metropolitan Opera bass Hao Jiang Tian was taking a group of Western rising opera stars to sing in Mandarin at the National Opera House. What chutzpah, I thought to myself. After I returned to New York, I dispatched my editorial team and made Tian a cover story of my bilingual YUE Magazine. Tian, Artistic Director of the project, gave up his own six-week singing engagement in Spain but chose not to take the stage during I SING BEIJING’s New York premiere. “It’s a night belonging to the future of opera and I wanted to give the stage to these young fellows,” he told me with the tenderness of a father. “In 10 or 20 years they will change the world”—a world that is ready for singing difficult artistic songs in Mandarin. Tian definitely felt, as many of the program participants have articulated, China would be a great future market for the Western opera. Born and raised in Maoist China, Tian himself traveled to the United States nearly 30 years ago, learning to sing Western opera and speak English “with thirty-five bucks.” A PBS special From Mao to the Met documented his journey from a factory worker in Beijing to a principal soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.


Hao Jiang Tian coaching Brian Wahlstrom. Photo: Joanna Yuen.

This is an exciting time for China’s music world. Western-style classical music and opera may find their second lives in China as the country’s young students continue to embrace these musical forms at a time when they are sidelined in the West by the more contemporary art forms. A few days prior to the I SING BEIJING concert, the New York Philharmonic celebrated the Chinese New Year with a gala concert in collaboration with its Chinese partner Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. New York Philharmonic’s Chairman Gary Parr told me at the post-concert dinner that their four-year partnership also called for an Orchestral Academy in Shanghai, which would provide specialized training to orchestra musicians, as well as annual performance residencies by the Philharmonic in Shanghai. 


Hao Jiang Tian with a student. Photo: Joanna Yuen.

Was the New York music audience ready for some Chinese inspiration?  “The New York audience is cool-headed and the press is discerning . . . I tried to present a historical perspective of the representative Chinese vocal music from the past few decades.” Tian went on to explain how he came up with a program that included farmers’ folksongs, patriotic ballads from the Mao and post-Mao eras, incipient forms of opera theatre, art songs fashioned after the lied, romantic love songs made popular by the iconic Teresa Teng and Chinese modern operas.

While listening to the lyrics about the Yellow River and China, I was wondering whether the Western audience would perceive the expressed sentiments as a projection of nationalist pride. Tian told me that patriotic songs go beyond national boundaries as he himself loved to sing “America the Beautiful.”

Hao Jiang Tian and I at the post-concert reception. Photo by Paul Docktor (docktorpaul@mac.com).

Brian Wahlstrom, an opera singer based in San Diego, California, told me that although “Ode to Yellow River” was specific to the Chinese experience during the Sino-Japanese War, he tried to inject the emotions that Americans had felt during World War II and September 11, as the music brings people of different cultures and experiences together. He also commented that he found the inclusiveness of Tian and his wife Martha Liao energizing. They surrounded him and the other singers with the best teachers from many disciplines. Asked how I SING BEIJING changed his life, he said, “The program definitely went beyond language studies . . . it deepened cultural understanding.” Wahlstrom, as well as other singers that I spoke to, did not feel that Mandarin was more difficult to memorize than songs written in other languages, and he tried to commit one page of lyrics to memory everyday. 

Tenor Anthony Kalil with Soprano Guanqun Yu singing Bevo al tuo Fesco Sorriso. Photo: Paul Docktor.

One of the most memorable deliveries from the evening was Thomas Glenn’s solo performance of “Happy Spring Awakening” from Siege of the Tiger Mountain, a symphonic poem that fuses the structure of the Western orchestra with the improvisatory nature and mannerism of the Peking opera.   Glenn, a Calgary, Canada native, told me that the piece that he sang at the Lincoln Center was  “extremely difficult . . . extremely high. I did not have the Peking opera technique, and they wanted me to sing with the Western opera technique.” Before the concert, Glenn just returned from performing a Peking opera duet at CCTV’s Chinese New Year’s Eve Special program, dubbed as Chunwan in China.  With reportedly more than 750 million viewers tuning in this year, landing a gig at Chunwan is China’s equivalent of singing during the intermission of the Super Bowl. I SING BEIJING appeared to have already opened new doors for some of its participants.


Hao Jiang Tian taking I SING BEIJING program participants to the Beijing factor where he used to work. Photo: Joanna Yuen.

While Glenn’s and other singers’ heart-felt performances won the hearts of many Chinese in the audience, they have equally enchanted the Western audience. One American guest gushed to me: “Phenomenal! It’s almost criminal to not have this run for a week.” Another American guest told me: “It made me want to SING!” Chen Guoqing, Vice Chairman and CEO of Pacific American Group and co-founder of China’s fourth largest airlines HNA Group, who co-sponsored the performance, told me during a post-concert reception that he thoroughly enjoyed the way the Chinese music repertoire meshed with Western operatic technique. He supported the program because he believed that the singers would learn to articulate the nuances of the Chinese sensitivity as they continued to grow.

The best part of the show was that it was not only about non-Chinese singers singing in Mandarin, it was also about Chinese singers and other nationalities singing in English, Italian, French and Mandarin. A “one-way street” cultural orientation was clearly not the motivation for Tian. Excerpts from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and La rondine, Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, Bernstein’s Candide, Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci and Gounod’s Faust rounded up the program. As the grand finale, all of the singers sang a mélange arrangement that blended Chinese folksong Beautiful Jasmine with renditions from Turandot. Despite the somewhat abrupt transition, the marriage of the two songs was not a facile exercise—it articulated I SING BEIJING’s stated mission to “facilitate the gentle clash of civilizations in the hope of bringing out the best of many worlds.”

I SING BEIJING (www.isingbeijing.org) is current on its first American tour:

Binghamton, New York

Monday, February 18, 2013 

Lexington, Kentucky

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 

Kennesaw, Georgia

Friday, February 22, 2013 

Memphis, Tennessee 

Sunday, February 24, 2013 

Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 

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