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The Saga of the Luckiest Baritone : Haijing Fu began singing to avoid a farmer’s life. Now, he is regarded as a world-class talent.

<i> Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer</i>

Critics are lauding Haijing Fu as that rare vocal breed--an authentic Verdi baritone. But singing came into his life only because he was desperate. Like most high school graduates at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution in China, Fu faced being sent to the countryside to be a farmer.

“Everybody tried to do different things to avoid going,” Fu said from his apartment in Queens, N.Y.

Fu’s chance came when the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing held auditions in Dalian, his native city, in the Liaoning Province in northeastern China in 1974.

“I didn’t know how to sing at all,” said Fu, 37. “I just wanted to do something to get away. I didn’t know any songs, but I learned some by ear, listening to the radio. That was the start. I thought, maybe I can do this, maybe I can be a singer. Maybe.”

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About 2,000 people auditioned, he said--a remarkable number, but don’t forget that Dalian has a population of 4 million. “There are a lot of people in China,” Fu said. “You’re always talking big numbers--not like 200, always thousands.”

Four tryouts were accepted and Fu was among them. “I was lucky. They said, ‘We only know you have an interesting voice, but we don’t know if you know music or not.’ I said, ‘I know nothing, but I can learn.’ That’s how it started.”

Leaving his family was difficult but exciting too. “All young people want to go to Beijing, the big city,” he said. He left behind his family, who still live in Dalian--his father, a doctor; his mother, who doesn’t work, and a younger brother, now 30, a businessman.

At the conservatory, Fu began learning two kinds of music notation--Chinese and Western. “Chinese scores are written in numbers,” he said, “a lot of numbers.” The numbers indicate pitches while lines placed under them indicate duration. He also learned Western notation as he began studying piano and singing. “The more I got to know, the more interesting it got,” he said.

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“We did opera and concert singing, lieder. We sang Western opera in Chinese mostly, but for training we learned arias or duets in the original language.”

His teachers weren’t sure he was a baritone. “Some said I was a baritone, others said I was a tenor,” he said. “So I learned tenor parts. I can sing pretty high. I still have a falsetto.”

But gradually he settled into the lower range “because it wouldn’t hurt me. I liked it very much.”

Among other opera roles, he learned Mozart’s Figaro, Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata"--the role he will sing for Opera Pacific, Saturday through Jan. 29--and Enrico in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which he will sing for San Diego Opera in February.

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He kept studying and singing Chinese music composed for TV and radio, as well. “In China you just cannot do only Western opera,” he said. “We have many opera houses, but they don’t do many works, and they only do one or two (Western) operas a year. They are popular. Many people love opera, but they don’t get a chance to see them.

“I also learned Western music, just for joy or to be ready for any repertory.”

He began his studies in 1974, but hesitated to finish. “If I finished the (master’s) degree,” he explained, “I would have to stay in China at least for five years to work for the government. After that, you can go out of the country. I had decided I was not going to finish because I wanted to come (to the U.S.) to learn more music and to do more work.”

But how to get out?

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His break came in 1986, when he and three other Chinese singers were allowed to tour the United States. Their last stop was Boston, where famed soprano and pedagogue Phyllis Curtin, then dean of the school for the arts at Boston University, came to the recital. Afterward, she asked him if he’d like to study with her.

“I said, ‘Oh, yes, please.’ That’s my chance.”

But he had trouble persuading suspicious authorities back home to let him go. “ ‘We want to keep you,’ they said. ‘We don’t want you to go to America.’ I said, ‘Oh, please, I’m still young, I want to learn more, not only for me but for our country.’ They don’t want anyone to prosper. They want you to stay in the country but know nothing.”

Finally, he got an OK, but with a proviso--after two or three years of studying, he had to come back. “I am going back--(but just) to visit and to give concerts.”

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Arriving in Boston turned out to be traumatic. “English was a terrible problem when I first came here,” Fu said. “I can remember very clearly because I knew nothing of English. I went to (language) school and music school at the same time. I worked six hours a day on English. Every day. It was a very difficult time.” In comparison, he worked “probably only two hours” a day on his music.

He also found Curtin’s teaching methods startlingly different from what he was used to. “You had to learn music very quickly here--to build repertory,” he said. “In China, in everything, we go slow. You learn one aria--it probably takes three or four months. You take it easy. But when you come to this country, you study like crazy. It’s like, crazy. But what can I do? But it took a long time to get used to it.”

Another challenge, he said, was learning to act.

“Chinese singers and Chinese people, attitudinally, they are kind of shy--they are inside more--and if you do Western opera the Chinese way, well, that doesn’t show very much. People won’t see if (your character is) happy or angry. Phyllis Curtin helped me a lot about this--not to overdo it, but to show what I’m thinking, what I’m doing.”

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The work has paid off. Fu made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1990 as Germont and returned there to sing that role again, as well as Enrico in “Lucia” and Sir Richard Forth in Bellini’s “I Puritani.”

He also has appeared at the Dallas Opera, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Greater Miami Opera, as well as the Spoleto Festival in Italy and other European locales. He sang in Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair in 1991.

W hen he sang Rigoletto last year in San Diego, Times Music Critic Martin Bernheimer wrote: “Haijing Fu, the Chinese baritone, was venturing this arduous challenge for the first time and, despite a few rough edges, served notice of a world-class talent.”

Fu now lives in Reago Park in Queens with his wife, Jin Chuan Wang, a former Chinese folk dancer whom he met in 1976, and their 11-year-old daughter, Xiao Fu, who is learning to play the piano.

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He is still a Chinese citizen. “But I think maybe someday I will get American citizenship somehow--because of my work,” he said. “When I go to Europe, which I’m allowed to do, if I have a Chinese passport, I have a very hard time getting a visa. It takes two, three months to get a visa to go to England or Italy. That’s terrible. But this season and next, I have nothing in Europe, only in the States. So right now I don’t need to worry about that."*

* Haijing Fu will sing Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata” for Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Saturday and Jan. 25, 27 and 28, 8 p.m.; next Sunday and Jan. 29, 2 p.m. $18 - $85. (714) 556-2787. He will sing Enrico in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” for San Diego Opera at San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., Feb. 11, 14 and 22, 7 p.m.; Feb. 17, 8 p.m.; Feb. 19, 2 p.m. $20-$90. (619) 236-6510.


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