UNITED IN SONG: Members of I Sing Beijing appear on stage to perform the Chinese folksong Jasmine at New York's Lincoln Center on February 16 (PAUL DOCKTOR)
As soprano Julia Metzler and baritone Brian Wahlstrom took the stage at New York's Lincoln Center on February 16, the audience brimmed with enthusiasm in enthusiasm to hear the familiar, bouncy rhythms of Ma Ke's Couple Learning to Read.
"I see a word on the card, and it's a word I know," sang the radiant Metzler in pitch-perfect Mandarin, "and the word is 'Pretty!' "
The audience roared in delight to hear the blond-haired, blue-eyed Metzler deliver the verse alongside Wahlstrom, who had wowed the crowd moments before with a heroic performance of Ode to the Yellow River from Xian Xinghai's classic Yellow River Cantata. The night was only beginning. As a parade of Western singers took the stage to deliver renditions of contemporary Chinese opera works, the audience greeted each performance with loud applause and cheers.
The 17 singers, hailing from the United States, Guatemala, Canada, Italy, Latvia and Mexico, are part of a program named I Sing Beijing, aimed at introducing promising Western performers to Mandarin vocal works from contemporary China. The singers spent five weeks in Beijing in the summer of 2011, learning the complexities of Mandarin tonal dictation and performing for local audiences. They were joined by five rising opera stars from China to perform scenes and arias from Western classics, including a stunning performance by soprano Yu Guanqun of Silvio… A Quest'ora from I Pagliacci.
The show is the brainchild of its artistic director Tian Haojiang, a Beijing native who has sung for the past 19 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera as a principal soloist. His autobiography, Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride From Mao to the Met was published in 2008 and a Chinese translation is set to be released this summer. His life story was adapted in 2009 for a one-man show and a nationally aired television special.
Tian launched I Sing Beijing to teach Mandarin as a "lyric language" integrated with Western classical vocal technique. The show features repertoire from various phases of contemporary Chinese vocal music including folk opera, ballads, and modern works with contrasting selections of classic Western operas such as Madame Butterfly and Faust.
"China is the opera market of the future," said one Western participant in a video montage of the singers visiting cultural sites such as the Great Wall, eating Peking Duck and flubbing their way through the lyrics of Gu Jianfen's That Is Me.
I Sing Beijing was co-founded by the Confucius Institute Headquarters and the Asian Performing Arts Council, offering immersive summer residencies in Beijing to Western performers who pass a highly competitive selection process. The residents undergo a course of intensive training under coaches of Metropolitan Opera, Central Conservatory of Beijing and the Shanghai Conservatory. This year, the students made their American debut with the performance at Lincoln Center and auditions are now underway for this summer's program from July 26 to August 28.
Martha Liao, President of the Asian Performing Arts Council, said at the conclusion of the program that the student performances are overwhelmingly resonant.
"For we insist that [the students] preserve their own hearts as a principal component in this unique cultural exchange," Liao said in a statement. "We do not want them to mimic or copy the Chinese way of singing these songs. We want their interpretation, but an interpretation with full understanding and feeling for the words. Once you have heard them sing this way, you'd understand why we are so dedicated to teaching Chinese as a lyric language."
The show certainly resonated with the audience at Lincoln Center, who favored Thomas Glenn's complex performance of Happy Spring Awakening from Siege of Tiger Mountain, completed with the joyful strains of the erhu and pipa (both are traditional Chinese stringed musical instruments ). Juliet Petrus, a soprano from Michigan, delighted the audience with the vocal acrobatics of the Kazakh folksong Mayila. Selections from The White Haired Girl, considered the first opera in Chinese vocal literature, also charmed the crowd. Contemporary ballads such as karaoke favorite The Moon Will Speak My Heart by Teresa Teng rounded out the offerings with a romantic lover's duet.
A closing arrangement of Jiangsu folksong Jasmine, leading into Puccini's triumphant classic Turandot, brought the crowd at Lincoln center to their feet. The entire cast took to the stage and pulled a protesting Tian from the front row to receive the accolades. Tian's legacy was manifested through the Western singers finding success by performing Chinese classics—just as he had found success in the West three decades earlier. East and West blended through the perfection of opera in symphonic diplomacy.
The author is a freelance writer living in New York City
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