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Canadian tenor Lucas van Lierop works hard on his performance of the classic The White-Haired Girl. Photos provided to China Daily
Some unusual music is being heard around the Chinese capital these days, as a group of foreign musicians tries to wrap their tongues around the local language and memorize traditional tunes. Chen Nan lends them an ear.
Lucas van Lierop is trying to sing the part of the evil landlord in the classic Chinese revolutionary musical, White-Haired Girl. He waits for the music to swell, takes a deep breath and tries to hit the crescendo again. What bounces off the walls of the university classroom in the northern part of the capital city is beginning to sound more and more like the classical operatic style he's trying so hard to replicate.
"Wo ji ji mang mang hui jia qu ..." he sings in Chinese, trying to convince the audience he's hurrying home, but getting the Chinese words exactly right is proving to be more difficult than hitting the high notes.
But that has been part of Van Lierop's rather steep learning curve in China.
A gifted tenor who sings City Opera Vancouver production Fallujah, Van Lierop, 23, is one of 21 young opera singers from the United States, Canada and Mexico taking part in I Sing Beijing, a cultural exchange program that has brought them to the Forbidden City - to sing opera, in Chinese.
That is why Van Lierop is working hard on his part in The White-Haired Girl, adapted from a film and first performed as an opera in 1945.
"When I got the script, I did a lot of research on the history and background, so I can better understand why the story happened and why the roles speak those lines," says Van Lierop, who plays the role of the despotic landlord Huang Shiren.
"I was trained in bel canto opera, which is mellow to the ears, while Chinese opera sounds shrill and tense. The tones of the language already challenge me, let alone the singing. I have to think and sing with a different logic. But now I am learning it, I'm realizing it's really cool."
The month-long I Sing Beijing program concludes on Aug 28 with a concert at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which will showcase a selection from both traditional and contemporary Chinese operas, and classical Western pieces, such as West Side Story and Faust.
Tian Haojiang is a Chinese opera singer who migrated to the US 30 years ago, and he mooted the cultural exchange initiative, now in its second year.
Tian, the first Chinese opera star to perform at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, decided to start the project because he saw how little the West knew and understood about China and Chinese opera.
He had spent decades singing in Italian, German and French. He hopes the program will allow opera practitioners in the West to know more about Chinese culture, and using Mandarin as a lyric language.
"Throughout my 30 years on stage at opera houses across Europe, I've felt that almost all of my colleagues and audiences knew nothing about Chinese music and history," says the 58-year-old.
"I bet millions of Chinese are learning English and watching Hollywood movies, but how many Chinese movies have audiences in the West seen? How much do they know about China besides Chinese food and kung fu?"
Thanks to the success of its debut year, I Sing Beijing's auditions held in 2011 across the US and Europe attracted thousands of young vocalists.
Sophia Chew, a mezzo-soprano from Piedmont, California, came to Beijing in early August and it was the first time she has actually seen the city, apart from on television.
Chew, like the other singers in the program, had to learn Mandarin for her roles, with help from professors at the China Conservatory of Music.
Her songs for the concert at the NCPA will be Jasmine Flower, which can be considered China's most popular folk melody, and My Homeland.
"I sang when I visited the Great Wall this morning and people around me cheered and clapped happily," she says. "They just sang along with me and then I knew how familiar they were with the songs and what the music meant to them."
"Two of the girls went to a manicure studio yesterday and they sang Chinese songs to the staff there, who all got very excited and sang along," says Zhu Ailan, a veteran soprano from the Beijing Conservatory of Music, who has been tutoring the group.
"Lots of Chinese phonetics don't exist in English but the Western students imitate the pronunciations, and they can sing in Chinese fluently in just a few days. They get to know the stories behind the songs and accurately capture the feelings.
"For the Chinese audience, it will also be a novel experience listening to the foreign singers singing Chinese songs they grew up with," Zhu adds.
In the first year of the I Sing Beijing program, Peter McClintock, a stage director with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 22 years, showed his support by becoming the director and acting coach.
McClintock has produced about 50 operas with the Met Opera, and is a long-time friend of Tian.
"More and more audiences in the West are enjoying Chinese operas, both traditional and modern," McClintock says. "The development of opera is like a microcosm of the country, fast and ambitious."
Tian agrees that the future of opera may be in China, although it is fading from popular consumption in the West. To that end, his dream is to train young Western professionals to sing Chinese contemporary opera so it can join the mainstream repertoire.
"In the past few years, more than 50 new opera houses have been built across China and more opera singers from the West are performing in China. The rich history in China also provides lots of inspiration for opera.
"The potential for Chinese opera is huge, both at home and abroad. My ultimate dream is to build a theater, which has an all-foreign cast singing in Mandarin, maybe next year," Tian says. But first, he will take this Western cohort to the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in February.
The I Sing Beijing singers were recipients of full scholarships sponsored by the Confucius Institute, a government agency that actively promotes Chinese language and culture outside China.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 08/24/2012 page18)