20 Foreign Youth Vocalists Learn Chinese Opera in Beijing
Hello, I am American "Xi’er"

[Source]    People's Daily Online - People's Daily [Time]    2011-08-22 13:18:13 

On August 18th, American “Xi'er” singing with passion at National Centre for the Performing Arts


“I Sing Beijing - Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts” hosted by Hanban invited 20 youth singers from 8 countries including the USA, Canada and Italy etc. Together with 6 Chinese youth singers, they made a concerted effort to learn Chinese opera over a period of one month’s intensive study.

On August 18th, they gave a report-back performance at National Centre for the Performing Arts. Over a period of one month, the “foreigners + China” chemistry was evident not only on stage…

American Katie Bolding still remembers the first day when she arrived in Beijing, “The plane landed in Beijing Capital International Airport, I just had to look out of the window. Being in an unfamiliar eastern country made me both excited and nervous.”

After 31 days, Bai Yuelan performed the Chinese opera The White Haired Girl at National Centre for the Performing Arts on August 18th. “The north wind is blowing, and the snowflakes are falling…”, as soon as the Xi’er with blond hair, blue eyes, adorned with red string and bearing orchid fingers appeared on the scene, the 2000 plus capacity concert hall of the National Centre for the Performing Arts was brimming with applause.

Bai Yuelan is not the only foreigner to have sung Chinese opera on a Chinese stage. During summer, she participated in the “I Sing Beijing - Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts” jointly hosed by Hanban and Asian Performing Arts Council together alongside 19 other youth singers from all over the world. They received Chinese language training and learned to sing Chinese opera.


Performing Chinese opera with foreign style

Latvian Yang Bailao denounced an exploitative landlord in a deep voice. Canadian Yang Zirong was “crossing huge forests and snowy lands with spirits soaring to the firmament” with lofty sentiment and aspirations. American Cheng Ying took great risks to save an orphan.

Receiving one-month’s training in performing Chinese opera with foreign style, the 20 foreign singers demonstrated the chemistry of Chinese opera and foreign style at the concert held on August 18th.

As an audience member, a Dutch youngster who was learning Chinese language in Beijing rained praise on the performance, “I think the performance is wonderful: Western opera and Chinese opera performed on the same stage. This has enabled me to deepen my understanding of Chinese music through comparison.”

A Chinese audience member noted that the format was novel, “The foreigner who sang the Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy did very well. He has understood a little of the essence of Peking Opera. It is not easy.”

This summer, “I Sing Beijing” invited 20 youth singers from 8 countries including the USA, Canada, Italy, Latvia, Albania, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay. Along with 6 Chinese youth singers, they made a concerted effort to learn Chinese opera during a period of one month’s intensive study.

Valdis Jansons who played the part of Yang Bailao in The White Haired Girl signed up without hesitation as soon as he heard that there was an opportunity to learn opera in China. He performed Italian opera at the National Centre for the Performing Arts two years ago when he began to showcase his talents within international musical circles. “China’s youth are very ambitious and diligent” – this straightforwardly positive first impression attracted Valdis Jansons to come back to China.

The “Xi’er” Katie Bolding hoped to make a excellent transformation through this opportunity to learn opera in China. She used to excel more in singing blues and rock music. “Opera performers have comparatively longer careers in art. I am 32 years old now, and my vocals have matured. ‘I Sing Beijing’ is a great opportunity.”

Chinese youth singers were also attracted by the competition. Ge Han, the teacher from the Vocal Music Department of Sichuan Conservatory of Music believes that by participating in “I Sing Beijing”, one can not only receive guidance from top-ranking opera artists but also learn from youth singers from all over the world through exchanging views.

Taking up their roles

Understanding culture is the biggest challenge

Chemistry between foreigners and China was apparent not only on stage

“What are you going to do tomorrow?” During Chinese class, teacher Wang Rui from University of International Business and Economics taught foreign students to read aloud. Foreign students felt puzzled, “Teacher Wang, what does this sentence mean? Zuò means sitting down, doesn't it?” “One pronunciation in Chinese may have different meanings and be represented by different characters.” Wang Rui explained with patience.

Language is the first obstacle for foreign singers learning Chinese opera: the changes brought by the four tones and flexible expressions in Chinese are very difficult. “Learning Chinese is as difficult as learning 4-5 European languages.” Wang Sihan sighed emotionally.

Understanding the Chinese culture within which the operas are embedded has been the greatest challenge for Katie Bolding. Luckily, The White Haired Girl has an uncanny connection with Bai Yuelan’s life. “Taking to this role” became easier.

She lived with her mother from an early age, far away from his father and three brothers. “When I am playing the part of Xi’er, I feel I am her. Her mental suffering is the result of losing all her family and friends.”

From her perspective: though languages differ, loneliness is a commonly shared problem that has existed for thousands of years. “Therefore, I don’t think this role is too difficult to understand. However, I need to learn more. I had to learn gestures and pronunciation so that the audience would be convinced that I am a Chinese girl.”

Her “farther” Valdis Jansons who played the part of Yang Bailao employed empathy to make up for his more limited life experience, “Though I have not gone through the pain experienced by Yang Bailao, a man who does not know how to save his daughter, I have experienced great frustration.”

His performance was also often influenced and inspired by the artistic expression of opera. “The White Haired Girl seems to be influenced by the Soviet Union. The characters’ emotions are expressed wildly: for this reason I love the opera very much.”

The Canadian youth singer Thomas Glenn played the part of Yang Zirong in Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. In America, the 80% of people on his block are ethnically Chinese or overseas Chinese. He has many Chinese friends. However, having come to China in person, he has gained a more in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture.

He ran into difficulties whilst singing the selection “Spring Bringing Us a New World” of the Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. “The pitch of Peking Opera is very high and demanding on performers’ overall performance. Moreover, every teacher has different ways of teaching the vocal ornamentation. This differs from Western operas which are required to be sung in accordance with the notation of musical scores.”

The world-famous documentary director Mr. Allan Miller was in charge of a special documentary about “I Sing Beijing”. In his view, “Exchanges between China and the West are confined to the fields of politics, economics, science and technology. The great achievement of ‘I Sing Beijing’ lies in the fact that it enables artists to try the others’ language and artistic thought, thus gaining a real understanding of each other and overcoming barriers to communication.”


Spreading a richer China through the sound of songs

“I Sing Beijing” is the creation of bass Tian Haojiang. As one of the first generation of Chinese vocalists to go global, Tian Haojiang has worked for the Metropolitan Opera in the USA for 19 years. He is remains active on the stages of mainstream American opera.

“28 years ago, Chinese opera was developing very slowly. I had to go to the West to learn different language and cultures in order to sing opera well. However, the situation has now totally changed. The West focuses greater attention upon Chinese opera. It’s time for Western singers to learn to sing in Chinese now.”

Tian Haojiang’s confidence is rooted in his experience in cross-cultural communication in music and the performance of original modern Chinese operas such as The First Qin Emperor and Poet Li Bai etc. on the international stage. From the yangko opera Husbands and Wives Learn to Read performed in the 1940s to the latest opera of Das Waisenkind performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Tian Haojiang has drawn upon material from the operas most representative of different periods of Chinese modern opera and put them on stage together with Western operas. This has allowed audiences an intuitive experience through comparative appreciation of Chinese and Western opera.

“Music is the most effective, sustainable and influential means of cultural communication.” Tian Haojiang hopes to break the stereotype that limit Chinese culture to being one of cuisine and martial arts by means of introducing operas. Making Chinese the language primarily sung in mainstream opera globally is Tian Haojiang’s dream. “Many students have said that they will continue to learn Chinese. These few words have been a source of gratification.”

In accordance with the ideas conceived by Xu Lin, Director-General of Hanban, I Sing Beijing’s final achievements will be evident when international youth vocalists, put a series of original Chinese classical operas on the world’s musical stage, performing vivid and colorful Chinese operas in Chinese as the messengers of cultural exchange between China and the West. They will provide friends in various countries with a unique audio-visual sensation and further stimulate and propel their enthusiasm for learning Chinese language and learning about Chinese culture.

According to Katie Bolding’s plans, another visit to China is no doubt on the cards. She is planning to give a concert in China with several foreign singers, “singing Chinese songs”.

Photography by Liang Changjie, reporter from People's Daily

Picture designed by Cai Huawei