Chinese Baritone in the Spotlight

Yalun Zhang has made the transition from a Beijing conservatory to American opera stages

A BRIGHT light on the opera horizon is a young Chinese baritone who came to the United States three years ago to study at the University of Colorado. Yalun Zhang won one of the important contests of the Pavarotti Competition last October, and with his November debut in the title role of Opera Colorado's "Rigoletto," proved himself a force to be reckoned with.

It has been a big leap, but the culture gap has not halted him. And while the transition from Beijing to the United States has been a challenge, his success over the various obstacles makes him laugh with glee.

He studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing (the Chinese equivalent of Juilliard). There he was assigned to Western opera and learned vocal technique in the Italian bel canto tradition. He also studied music history and trained in Western acting styles and dance.

"We were lucky the government had just finished the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Zhang said in an interview during Opera Colorado's "Rigoletto" production. "You know the `terrible time'? After that, most of the Chinese people wanted to learn from Westerners, not Russians. Beverly Sills came to my school. Maureen Forrester, [Luciano] Pavarotti, and [Placido] Domingo and others came to China and give master classes. Nicola Rossi Lemeni had master classes I took."

Zhang met his future wife at the Central Conservatory, but they were not allowed to marry until after graduation. They sang together as members of the National Opera House of China for seven years.

An American woman working for Central Broadcasting in Beijing interviewed him for radio. Impressed by his talent, she suggested he come to America. She also told a Chinese graduate student she knew to send him application papers for Colorado University, where he won a scholarship.

Zhang began singing small roles with Opera Colorado a year after he started at Colorado University. "Rigoletto" was his first starring role in the US.

Nathaniel Merrill, artistic director of Opera Colorado, is delighted with Zhang's blossoming. "The reviews were unanimous, this is the `Rigoletto' of the future," he says of Zhang.

"The first time I worked with him, he said `Yes' to everything I said to him, but he didn't understand a word," says Mr. Merrill. Not only did Zhang have to learn to speak English, he had to learn to read Italian, translate it into Chinese and then back into English to be able to talk about the role. Fortunately, Italian is an easier language to learn than either Chinese or English, Zhang says. Fewer rules and fewer exceptions. The music helps the learning process because Italian sounds so good when sung ; the vowels are pure, so every tone is a true tone.

But it was harder for Zhang to learn to express emotion in the Italian style.

`FIRST of all, I think Western people and Chinese people are much similar emotionally," says Zhang. "Just difference is in expression. Chinese maybe more inside, Americans more outside, and Italians even more so. So I need to practice putting emotion outside, not to hold inside."

Merrill says that Zhang has had to learn, as the method actors do, to tap into his own experience. "He has a little boy born in China who is growing up an American. And [Zhang] is able to express the emotions of that experience now. Because of the demands of his culture - the way they are brought up - the Chinese are very hard workers. They have the capacity to do more than Americans.... Patience he has in abundance. He tries again and again and doesn't get discouraged."

DURING rehearsals for "Rigoletto," Zhang left to compete in the Pavarotti competition. Winning did him a lot of good, according to Merrill. "There was a huge difference when he came back from Philadelphia," Merrill says. "He was a different person. This is an explosion of talent such as I have never witnessed before." Zhang suddenly inhabited the role with such poise and power it surprised even a veteran like Merrill.

Zhang had won a prestigious competition in Bulgaria a few years ago and the Met last year, but the Pavarotti competition has meant the most to him. Pavarotti himself told the young singer he had the right stuff, saying Zhang is "a real Verdi baritone."

* Yulan Zhang will be singing with the following companies over the next year: Opera Pacifica (Valentin in `Faust'), Washington Opera (Renato in `Un Ballo Maschera'), Portland (Rodrigo in `Don Carlo'), Opera Colorado (Enrico in `Lucia di Lammermoor'), New Jersey State Opera (Tonio in `I Pagliacci').

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