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Thomas Glenn sings the Chinese opera Siege of Tiger Mountain at the Lincoln Center in New York on Feb 16 as part of the I Sing Beijing program. Hu Haidan / China Daily
A new program blends the best of Chinese and Western operas. Derek Bosko reports in New York.
There's no doubt that I Sing Beijing - a redolent blend of musicians, Western traditions and modern Chinese opera - is an important catalyst in the evolving relationship between the United States and China.
But the performance, which made its US debut Feb 16 at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, also is providing an unforgettable experience for a couple of dozen Western artists by introducing them to Mandarin as an idiom for classical singing.
Prior to the knockout performance, the singers participated in intensive Mandarin lessons, vocal coaching and stagecraft workshops with top coaches from New York's Metropolitan Opera, Seiji Ozawa Music Academy, Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory.
The fruits of those labors were much in evidence. The Western singers joined forces with rising stars from China in an eclectic program that included scenes and arias from the Western repertoire coupled with a historical tour of contemporary Chinese vocal works.
Xiaoli Meng-Lumpkin, a New York based therapist in the audience, says she was impressed with both the singers' skill and relative youth.
The company's performance of Happy Spring Awakening from the Chinese opera Zhi Qu Weihushan (Siege of Tiger Mountain) resonated loudly with her.
"I grew up with that Peking Opera, during the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76). That's one of the few operas we had during those times," she explains.
Now in its third year as a program, I Sing Beijing reflects the growing migration of modern Chinese music into Western classical music.
But Manhattan School of Music professor Patty Kopec dismisses typical American definitions of opera as narrow.
"Music is an international language, and it speaks to the heart," Kopec says.
Despite stark differences in the linguistic and musical conventions of Chinese and Western operas, the key to a successful performance, she says, is "not just to sing but to understand the content because then you sing from within your heart".
Kopec notes one-third of her students at the Manhattan music school are Chinese nationals - testimony to China's embrace of Western culture.
I Sing Beijing is just one example of China's growing cultural influence around the world.
The program was co-founded by Hanban, which administers Confucius Institutes, and the Asian Performing Arts Council. It promotes Chinese culture, and its operatic styles in particular, internationally. While the program was created with the idea of reviving and spreading Chinese songs, it also aims to fuse Chinese and Western elements.
To that end, I Sing Beijing, now in its third year, holds annual auditions for Western opera singers. Those who are selected receive scholarships for intensive Chinese-language study coupled with musical coaching in Beijing during the summer. None of the 20 to 30 Western opera singers selected for the program had prior knowledge of Chinese.
The music that captivated the audience is the brainchild of artistic director Hao Jiangtian.
Tian came of age during the "cultural revolution". A professional opera singer in the West for more than 27 years, he says he always dreamed of bringing not only singers but also conductors and instrumentalists to China to help them get a sense of the texture of Chinese culture. Many of the songs popular during Tian's youth were adapted for the I Sing Beijing program.
I Sing Beijing may be masquerading as an old art form in the guise of opera but is, in fact, something new.
For a mingling of operatic traditions, it seems this is just the beginning.
Hu Haidan contributed to the story.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 03/01/2013 page20)