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Updated: 2012-03-09 07:34

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Tian Haojiang with students visiting the factory in Beijing he worked at as a teenager in the 1980s. In 2010,Tian initiated the "I Sing Beijing" program to bring young Western opera singers to China. Provided to China Daily

Opera singer lends voice to bridge East and West

When world-renowned basso opera singer Tian Haojiang was a child, he hated Western music. Afflicted with a scalp condition that required his hair to be plucked out before ointment was applied, Tian learned to fear the "soothing" Western classical music his musician parents played when it was time to sit through his treatment.

But later, as a teenager during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when scraps of Western culture were hoarded like treasure, Tian discovered a love for Western music and books. He yearned to escape his job at a factory producing electrical boilers; he broke into a library to steal Western books, drank and picked fights. With guitar in hand, he sang banned Russian love songs for his friends.

One afternoon, a stranger heard him yelling for a friend's attention, and told him he had the kind of "big voice" to become a professional singer.

Today, Tian has earned worldwide recognition for more than 1,300 performances of 40 operatic performances internationally.

"There was no way I could have imagined what would happen in my life," he says.

"Back then, life in China was very simple and for us we couldn't dream too much. There was no room to dream."

After auditioning for and being admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1976, he went on to study music in the US at the University of Denver in 1983. In his first week in the US, he visited New York with $35 (27 euros) and a guitar on his back. He thought he would be a rock star then, he says with a laugh. Of that money, he spent $8 on a standing pass at the Metropolitan Opera, and was bowled over as he watched Luciano Pavarotti fill the theater.

Ten years later to the day, he performed on stage with the Italian tenor.

"It was very emotional for me," he says. "I was very shy during rehearsals, but on the night of our first performance when I realized the significance of the date I stuttered and stumbled as I told him my story. He kept saying 'Si, si, Bravo, bravo', I had no idea if he'd understood. But at curtain bow, he waited for me to pass and held my hand and we walked out on the stage together. I was in tears. That was a truly unforgettable moment."

In 2010, Tian initiated the "I Sing Beijing" program to bring young Western opera singers to China. Selected from several hundred applicants, 20 American singers traveled to Beijing to study Chinese contemporary opera, performing in Mandarin at the National Center for the Performing Arts at the end of their month-long stay.

None of the singers who attended the program last year had studied Mandarin before, says Katherine Chu, the "I Sing Beijing" program director.

"What's neat about this is that it's more than just paying it forward in the world of opera," Chu says.

"It's really paying it forward for the future of the global village, because it's about bringing people together through music and song. The participants gained a better view of the East, witnessing it firsthand."

Laurie Feldman, a stage director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, says Tian is committed to mentoring younger singers.

"He has a passion for bringing young singers along, helping them and teaching and preparing them for careers both in China and in the rest of the world. It's a very special quality he has, the quality of valuing mentoring, and valuing paying it forward. He's the foremost basso opera singer to come out of China to have an international career, and he's a big inspiration to young singers, both in the West and in Asia."

During the program, Tian spends hours each day with the singers, working with them on their performances pieces.

"Over the years, I have had so many Western colleagues and many times I have felt that 99 percent of them didn't know anything about Chinese music, language, history or culture. For many years, I felt there were also negative thoughts about China, and I started thinking about how one day I would love to see Western opera singers perform Chinese contemporary opera in Mandarin. That was my dream."

He jokes that there was some small measure of glee at seeing Americans try to conquer Mandarin in the way he had done with so many other languages over the years.

"In my first semester in America, I had to learn 44 pieces in German, Italian, French and Latin, and I always laughed about the idea that maybe one day they might have to suffer like I did," he says.

American opera singers are increasingly considering the Chinese market, Feldman says.

"China is a burgeoning frontier for opera in the world, and every major Chinese city has a state of the art opera house now," she says.

"There's a lot of money and a lot of enthusiasm for opera in China, at a time when the rest of the world is really struggling financially to put operas on the stage. People in China love opera, both traditional and classical Western opera, and they want participation from the West in learning how to improve and build upon that."

As it is still a developing field, there are no real course materials for Western singers to study Mandarin, Tian says. The program is considering preparing a textbook for foreign singers interested in singing in Mandarin, he says.

Above all, "I Sing Beijing" is about promoting cross-cultural understanding and the burgeoning Chinese contemporary opera scene, Tian says.

Since the 1950s when Chinese contemporary opera first emerged, about 130 operas have come out of China, he says. In recent years, Tian has performed in a number of Chinese contemporary operas in the West, and has found Western audiences very receptive.

He estimates that about 25 Chinese contemporary operas have been performed in the West.

"Even though none of them have become classics yet, there is certainly a chance."

"Chinese symphonic works have also been seen and heard all over the world. I think that in the next 20 years, we will see more and more Chinese contemporary operas on the stage. How many Western opera singers will be on stage in these operas, I don't know yet. But we're starting that process now."

Last summer, he also took the singers in the program to visit his old factory.

"I wanted them to see how regular Chinese people have lived," he says.

"When we arrived at the front gate, we saw both a Chinese flag and an American flag, and we found out that it has since become a US-Chinese joint-venture factory. In some ways, I feel that I'm also a joint-venture product. Mixing between cultures is good for people, and for artists."

You may contact the writer at kdawson@chinadailyusa.com