This summer’s I Sing Beijing program led by Hao Jiang Tian, Master Teacher and Artistic Director of the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts in Beijing, was much in the news with its innovative mix of teaching Chinese opera and Mandarin to young Western singers.
Tian conceived of the program with his wife Martha Liao, president of the Asian Performing Arts Council of New York “as a response to the rise of a dynamic scene for vocal arts in China” that has come from the immense popularity of Western opera in China and the simultaneous growth of Western interest in Chinese opera. As Time Magazine reporter John Krich wrote in “As Opera Struggles in West, an Art Form Flourishes in China”:
“’The future of opera may be in China,’ says Tian Hao Jiang, China's most celebrated operatic export [and] a mainstay at New York's Metropolitan Opera. ‘So it's about time to reverse the trend. Instead of Chinese singers always coming to the West, Western singers are coming to learn Chinese.’”
In cooperation with the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, the leading agency in China for teaching Chinese as a second language, the 2011 program provides a cross-cultural experience and new career opportunities for the twenty young American and European artists. One young opera singer explained to National Public Radio’s Louisa Lim why she came to China: “Many prominent opera companies have closed their doors. More have had to cut down on their seasons, the number of productions. And then the number of jobs are shrinking, so that was another reason that fueled my interest in coming over here and exploring.”
Accompanied by filmmaker Alan Miller who is producing a documentary on “I Sing Beijing,” Tian took the singers to the boiler factory where he worked during the Cultural Revolution, a rebellious teenager with a penchant for singing Western songs. In Lim’s words:
As the cameras roll, he stands in the cavernous machine workshop together with his old colleagues, belting out “Oh, Susanna,” a forbidden American folksong. They used to sing it secretly.
The most moving moment comes when a group of young factory workers bursts out singing their own factory anthem, which turns out to be Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The new Chinese lyrics include a mention of how the company is “burning its chest to warm the earth.” The opera singers join in, their polished chorus providing the perfect counterpoint to the workers. The two halves of Tian's life have come together.
The factory encounter began with the Western singers performing Chinese folk songs—a YouTube video records the boisterous scene (Tian is playing the accordion).