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iSING! Festival is Training a New Generation of Mandarin-Speaking Opera Singers

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With its UNESCO-recognized gardens, silk and embroidery artisans, and classical music art forms of Suju opera and Pingtan, Suzhou is a city steeped in centuries-old cultural traditions. However, in true “East-meets-West” fashion, each year in August the city plays host to the iSING! International Young Artists Festival, which brings together emerging Chinese and Western vocalists for a month-long, tuition-free program of intensive Western opera training, Mandarin classes, and public performances.

One of the festival’s unique features is that it introduces Chinese modern opera and Mandarin as a lyric language to Western vocalists with little to no exposure to the language, or to Chinese culture. While aspiring Western vocalists typically undergo training in various European languages, such as German, French, and Italian, it is quite rare to incorporate Asian languages into their study regimen. What must it be like, then, to embrace Mandarin as a lyric diction and to merge it with the Western operatic tradition by using contemporary Chinese vocal repertoire?

While aspiring Western opera vocalists typically undergo training in various European languages, such as German, French, and Italian, it is quite rare to incorporate Asian languages into their study regimen

According to one of this year’s participants, Holly Flack, the answer might seem counter-intuitive. “As a voice student, we learn art songs in captivatingly difficult languages such as Czech and Russian,” says the soprano from Portland, Oregon. “Native Mandarin is very challenging to speak because of the four tones, but when you sing in Mandarin the tones disappear, and so it’s really just about pronunciation on the notes of the music. And the music itself is beautiful.”

Originally launched in 2011 as I SING BEIJING, the pioneering festival relocated to Suzhou Industrial Park just outside of Suzhou’s historic district in 2014. Its founder and Artistic Director, Beijing-born Hao Jiang Tian, is an internationally-renowned Chinese opera bass cantante, and a trailblazer in the field himself, having appeared at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for 20 years and sung over 1,400 performances worldwide.

Although he was unable to speak more than a few words of English, Tian went to the United States to advanced his opera career, eventually learning to sing operas in English as well as Italian, German, French, and Russian. While abroad, he would often field questions from Western peers, many of whom were eager to learn more about Chinese cultural history. “Colleagues would ask me many questions about China and I began to realize that their knowledge of the country — its literature, history, music, contemporary life — was really quite limited,” Tian recalls.

Hao Jiang Tian in Master Class with Siying Tian, Soprano, Hubei Province China

Hao Jiang Tian in master class with soprano Siying Tian

As a way of addressing this imbalance, Tian — along with his wife Martha Liao, who serves as the Festival’s General Manager — enlisted the help of a Denver-based non-profit to bring Western vocalists, conductors, and opera directors and coaches to conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai. Growing interest from both sides led to the founding of the Festival. After running the event successfully in Beijing for a number of years, Tian and Liao decided on a change of scenery based in part on an invitation by Suzhou’s then-Deputy Mayor. “We fell in love with the city, particularly the area by the lake,” says Liao. “To us it really embodies the East-meets-West ideal. And the Suzhou Performing Arts Center, with whom we have a wonderful relationship, has all of the facilities that we need.”

For participants such as Ricky Feng Nan (南枫), a tenor and Hubei native, iSING! provides an opportunity to embrace his Chinese cultural heritage. Currently at Yale, Nan first started studying music as an undergraduate in the US, and his experiences in Suzhou offer a counterpoint to those of his Western colleagues. “One’s [cultural] background makes a big difference in how one prepares music, and how one communicates that music with others,” he says.

“One’s background makes a big difference in how one prepares music, and how one communicates that music with others”

Already fluent in Mandarin, but not trained in Chinese vocal repertoire, Feng aims to use his Western operatic style to promote vocal works sung in Mandarin and theatrical music about Chinese themes by Chinese composers. “My festival audition has already resulted in a job. I did a cover of the Chinese opera Marco Polo [which debuted at Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice in September 2019], a production that is sung in a Western style using Mandarin.”

Merry Widow rehearsal with Ricky Nan Feng and Dinko Klinec

Hybridity has always been one of opera’s underlying principles, and the iSING! Festival reinforces the art form’s universalizing tendencies. This year’s participants were chosen through a rigorous application process, with auditions being held on three continents — Asia (China), Europe (Germany, Italy), and North America (United States). As a testament to the festival’s trans-cultural emphasis, its talented corps of vocalists are alumni or current members of a range of international institutions, including Strasbourg’s Opéra du Rhin, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice, the Zürich Opera, Bologne’s Scuola dell’Opera, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, and New York City’s Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music.

Related:

Wuzhen Theatre Festival Brings Fringe-Style Performances to an Ancient Canal Town

Although a comparatively new art form, Western-style opera about Chinese culture written and performed by Chinese composers and singers is beginning to find a significant audience within China. Beijing’s seminal National Center for the Performing Arts and the Shanghai Grand Theatre have been joined in recent years by two stunning cultural landmarks, the Guangzhou Opera House (Zaha Hadid Architects) and Harbin Opera House (MAD Architects), with Norwegian firm Snøhetta having been commissioned earlier this year to build the futuristic Shanghai Grand Opera House.

Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid Architects (photo by Scarbor Siu on Unsplash)

“In addition to bringing Western singers to China, our other primary goal is to assist young Chinese singers to go to the West to study and perform on Western opera stages,” says iSING! founder Tian. International exposure of this kind allows promising Chinese singers to study and develop according to the latest operatic techniques. However, it is anything but a zero-sum game, for opera both defines and unites cultures. As Tian puts it, “New York is our home. Beijing is our home. Suzhou is our home. We belong to the world of opera. We belong to the world.”

Cover photo: Liang Wanchun, Bass, China Andrew Campbell, Tenor USA, “Merry Widow” Rehearsal

Brian Haman
    Brian Haman is the Book Review and Interview Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. His writing on contemporary literature, art, and music from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Singapore has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Japan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Asian Review of Books, and ArtAsiaPacific, among others.