Global Chinese Culture
In a recent interview of Opera News, DAVID HSIEH talked with two Chinese artists who established their names in the world opera scene — bass Hao Jiang Tian (田浩江, literally meaning big river) and bass-baritone Shenyang (沈洋, somehow also literally meaning big ocean, and the English spelling of two names are not even coherent, with the former being “westernized” and the latter in natural Chinese order).
The article is here:http://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2010/5/Features/Face_to_Face.html
When Hao Jiang Tian left China, in 1983, the per capita GDP of China was less than $400. By the time Shenyang won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, in 2007, per capita GDP had risen to more than $5,000, China’s trade surplus with the U.S. exceeded $200 billion, and the country was on its way to overtaking Germany as the world’s third-largest economic entity. Chinese economic progress over the past thirty years is hardly news. But outside the economic arena, what else in China has changed during those years? Born several generations apart during a time when China saw tremendous developments, bass Tian and bass-baritone Shenyang both appeared on the Metropolitan Opera stage in the current season, and they recently sat down with OPERA NEWS to discuss the opera scene during their respective times in China. The conversation took place in Tian’s apartment overlooking the Lincoln Center campus.
Wall Street Journal on Shenyang, with short videos, written in 2009:
Traveling in Shanghai two years ago, the superstar soprano Renee Fleming discovered a 23-year-old with an unusually mature bass-baritone voice. He was a striking discovery: While many classical musicians have come out of China in recent years, opera singers have been rarer.
She quickly introduced him to voice coaches at the Metropolitan Opera. Next week, Shenyang — he combined his name, Shen Yang, into one word for the stage — is scheduled to perform a recital of works by composers including Schubert and Brahms at Alice Tully Hall in New York. His Metropolitan Opera debut, in the role of Masetto in ‘Don Giovanni,’ is April 13.
Ms. Fleming calls Shenyang one of the most promising singers she’s heard in years. The soprano, who rarely mentors young singers, thought he could benefit from the Met. ‘He needed polishing but, of course, we all need to learn,’ Ms. Fleming says.
Phoenix Press on Hao Jiang Tian and one of his co-production with quite avant-garde director Lin Zhaohua (林兆华):
Tian HaoJiang was born in Beijing with a very special voice: it was so big that very soon he could use it to call friends down from the fifth floor. Big voices were rather common in those days – China in the 50’s and 60’s before private telephones and elevators – so his went unnoticed for years until it was discovered by accident by a voice teacher. From then on, his life changed drastically, and his voice became he: Tian, the bass singer who will be singing his eighteenth season at the Met this fall.
The trajectory has been anything but smooth. Tian arrived in New York from Beijing in 1983 with $50 in his pockets. He promptly spent $8 on a standing room ticket at the Met and watched, wide-eyed, Pavarotti in Verdi’s opera Ernani. The next day he was plunged into the classic struggles of a young artist in a foreign country. Ten years later, on that very same day, he was singing with Pavarotti on that very same stage that stole his heart ten years before. Since then Tian has sung in more than 40 operas in some 1300 performances, at the Met as well as in other renowned opera houses around the world. In addition to the traditional repertoire, new operas with a Chinese theme began to solicit Tian in recent years: In December, 2006, he sang with Domingo in Tan Dun’s “First Emperor”, and six months later, in July 2007 he sang for the first time in Chinese as the poet in Guo Wenjing’s opera “Poet Li Bai”, and in 2008 he appeared in Stewart Wallace’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”. All this is graphically recounted in his book “Roaring River”, published in 2008.
Having sung on stage and having told his stories in black and white, Tian is now ready to combine the two and, for the first time on stage, to act himself. It is, after all, his vocal voice that best expresses his feelings and thoughts. The enthusiastic reception of his recent ‘singing’ book tour around the world reinforces his belief. Now he wants to use stories, bombastic revolutionary songs as well as nostalgic underground melodies, to recapture the sounds and sights of his growing-up years in turbulent China. He will also describe his Met years with behind-the-scene anecdotes peppered with snippets of operas. He will use the death of his brother in 1999 as a turning point in his pursuit of worldly fame and fortune…All this is a new challenge for him, stylistically and emotionally, and he is approaching it with great expectations and apprehensions.
He hopes to invite his contemporaries, especially fellow artists from China who started in the 80’s, matured in the 90’s and reached their respective pinnacles in the new millennium to a collective review of their past against their visions of the future. Songs are powerfully evocative, and Tian in his role as a seasoned singer would like to use his songs to revisit with his contemporaries the long road they had traveled together. Maybe they could figure out, collectively, why there is at present such a strong movement towards returning ‘home’, towards retiring into the ‘wilds’, towards letting go of ‘everything’. Tian has no ready answers, therefore he continues to sing.
His intended audience, of course, is not limited to his contemporaries alone. But how to reach the younger generations who have grown up in totally different sounds and sights? Tian would amuse them with the story of his first guitar, in fact one of the country’s first guitars. Or with the difficult choices of staging a scene. Or with his brother’s obsessions with the navy. The bottom line is: will the young mock or sympathize with Tian’s sense of loss: in faith, in direction, in the joy of living itself? Will they listen with interest to this particular ‘Witness of the times’, to borrow the role of an artist as defined by Simone de Beauvoir?
But Tian has been preparing this show since 1999, the year his only brother died in Beijing. In between performances, Tian managed to fly 16 hours each way and spend 3 hours with his brother in the hospital. They talked and for the first time in their lives they sang together, songs that they knew from the past. Tian could not believe how well his brother sang, could not accept the fact that his brother never saw any of his operas, and regretted deeply that he never took his brother to catch trout in Colorado as promised. More than anything else, he began to doubt who was the true singer, who lived better as a human being in spite of appearances. This one-man show is in part Tian’s homage to his uncomplicated brother with a short but contented life.
Denver has generously commissioned Tian’s one man show; PBS has also confirmed their interest. Now in Beijing, Tian is working hard with director Lin Zhaohua to bring his libretto to life: with passion and with an uncompromising sense of humor.
Hope we’ll be hearing more about them and more OF them in the future.