A Chinese star's rare rise in Western opera

Hao Jiang Tian's hard upbringing in the Cultural Revolution helped him find his voice.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mephistopheles: Hao Jiang Tian performed in 'Faust' at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
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In the past two decades, many musicians have emerged from the ashes of China's Cultural Revolution to reach the top ranks of classical piano, violin, or composition. Yet few opera singers have enjoyed comparable success, making the tale of Hao Jiang Tian, a bass who performs regularly at New York's Metropolitan Opera, especially remarkable.

Mr. Tian grew up in Beijing, the son of musicians who were sent off to the countryside for "reeducation" at the onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Tian was 15. He watched as his piano teacher was carted off to prison and was ordered to smash the family's classical record collection. While living alone with his younger sister he discovered his talent for singing, and would sneak away from his state-assigned factory job, using bathroom and smoke breaks to practice his scales.

When Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music reopened in 1976, Tian was one of 17 singers to gain admission (600 applied). In 1983, he won a scholarship to study voice at the University of Denver; eight years later he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing alongside Plácido Domingo (to hear Tian on stage, go to www.tianhaojiang.com).

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Tian's colorful childhood and rise through the operatic ranks are chronicled in a new memoir, "Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met" (with Lois B. Morris). He recently took time out between performances at the Met to talk with the Monitor.

Classical music in China has exploded in the 25 years since you left. How different does it seem now to you?

The big shock for me is there are so many conservatories now. Before, they were only in the major cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Quangzhou. Now in China there are almost 350 conservatories. Another thing I've been shocked by is the size of the conservatories. In Sichuan Province there are over 10,000 music students in the conservatory. I've visited a few and there can be over 500 students in just the voice department alone. But one thing that's interesting: because there are the same amount of opera houses and the same number of orchestras and chamber ensembles, there aren't enough jobs for graduates.

One of the biggest challenges you faced early on was proving to Western opera directors and audiences that you could master the language and understand the culture.

One year I was singing in "The Barber of Seville" in Florence. I was the only Asian in the cast. Everyone else was Italian. Everybody jumped on me about my diction – even the usher in the theater. It's not that I didn't do my homework. Even before I arrived I had learned the opera and had been coached here in New York. It was still not good enough for the Italians. But I worked extremely hard for two weeks and soon they were happy.

Did that frustrate you?

It was not a happy experience, but I can understand that situation. For example, the Peking Opera is our traditional opera in China. It's very stylized with heavy makeup. It's totally different from bel canto singing. Now we are starting to see some Western people in Peking. I don't know. Because this is really a Chinese culture I just don't see Westerners taking over the opera stage in Beijing.

What are the advantages of coming to opera from such a different cultural background?

I went through a lot, especially during the Cultural Revolution. That brings a quality to my acting. I think I can feel deeper when I'm going to express happiness, sadness, jealousy, madness, passion, and whatever. Experiences will help you on stage. My Western colleagues were all brought up in nice families. They started singing in churches and music schools. Sometimes you can feel if somebody's life is too smooth; their acting doesn't have enough color in it.

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