Thomas Glenn, a bespectacled tenor from San Francisco, waited for the piano bars to swell, took a deep breath and tried again to screech correctly. But what resounded off the walls of a university classroom in the heart of this capital city sounded little like the classical Chinese operatic style he was trying to imitate. Hitting those notes was proving a challenge, but that was part of the cultural learning curve.
A gifted vocalist who has graced the Metropolitan Opera’s stage, Glenn, 36, was in the middle of rehearsing a song from “The Siege of Tiger Mountain,” a Peking opera that originated during the Cultural Revolution and is beloved in China, though perhaps less appreciated in Western concert halls and opera houses. “To us foreigners, bel canto opera is pure and beautiful to our ears while Peking Opera sounds shrill and tense,” he said. “But now that I’m learning it I’m realizing it’s really jazzy and improvisational, which is pretty cool.”
For uninformed visitors, the sight and sound of foreigners belting it out in Chinese might seem bizarre. But Glenn is part of an unprecedented program called I Sing Beijing that has brought to China 20 young Western performers from the United States, Europe and Central and South America to learn to sing opera in Mandarin. More than 200 people auditioned in Los Angeles, Denver and New York.
The monthlong program will conclude Thursday with a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts, China’s premier cultural venue, that will include pieces from “Madame Butterfly” and “Lucia di Lammermoor” along with a selection from “West Side Story” and a host of songs in Mandarin from both traditional and contemporary Chinese operas.
This musical exchange is the brainchild of bass Tian Haojiang, an opera star who emigrated from China to the U.S. more than 20 years ago. For Tian, who has spent decades singing in Italian, German and French, I Sing Beijing offers the chance to teach Westerners about Chinese culture while introducing them to Mandarin as a lyric language.
“Throughout my 25 years onstage at the Met and opera houses across Europe, I’ve felt that almost all of my colleagues and audiences know nothing about Chinese music and history,” said Tian as he paused from coaching a slight man with a giant voice. “It’s my dream to train young Western professionals to sing Chinese contemporary opera and help it join the mainstream opera world.”
Tian’s wish is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Though opera has for centuries epitomized the height of Western culture, this art form is slowly fading from the contemporary landscape. As music education funding is slashed across the U.S. and regional opera houses close or dramatically reduce their productions for lack of audiences, some enthusiasts fear that the powerful librettos and transcendental scores that have long enchanted millions of Westerners may one day thrill no more.
“More and more American opera singers who used to be able to make a living doing what they love now no longer can,” said Lenore Rosenberg, associate artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera and a guest lecturer in the program here. “Whereas in China they’re opening lots of new opera houses and they’re going to need some singers.”
Indeed, China is pouring money into new opera venues, like the recently opened, $202-million Guangzhou Center for the Performing Arts designed by Zaha Hadid, and dedicating funds for opera education and productions. Propelled by millions of classical musicians and their powerful voices, China is amid an opera renaissance that began after the Cultural Revolution, when many opera composers were persecuted and all music had to conform to Mao’s political agenda.
Last year, Peking University inaugurated its Academy of Opera, the first institution in China dedicated to the training and research of opera performance, stage design and production. Graduates may well find work at the National Center for the Performing Arts, China’s equivalent of the Met, where “Turandot” just concluded and a number of Western operas, including a joint production of “Rigoletto,” with the Teatro Regio di Parma, and “La Bohème,” will take the stage in the next few months. Major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen regularly present classic Western works in addition to traditional Chinese operas.
These days, opera remains political. By bringing classic Western productions to domestic Chinese audiences and exporting Chinese operas and talent like this year’s American tour of “Chinese Orphan,” performed by the Yu Opera of Henan Province, the Communist Party hopes to dramatically boost its soft power and cultural prestige. In fact, all I Sing Beijing singers have received a full scholarship partly funded by the Hanban/Confucius Institute, a government agency that teaches Mandarin abroad. Cultural collaborations are increasingly common for China, with foreign collaboration on film productions and art exhibitions seen as increasingly lucrative as China’s economy soars.
Just as young Americans are flocking to China for corporate job opportunities, opera singers are also looking to the Middle Kingdom.
“You go home to America and it’s a downer,” said Brian Wahlstrom, 29, a blond former punk-rocker from San Diego who sings baritone. “Endowments are being cut everywhere, but here in China there is all this growth, so learning Mandarin makes sense.”
Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa, 21, a Los Angeles native of Japanese and Filipino descent, has found that learning Mandarin has made him a better singer. He is also discovering that his latest role as a global citizen can sometimes get lost in translation.
“People on the street here are really supportive of me learning their language,” he said. “But when I tell them I’m from the United States, they say, ‘Where are you really from?’”