Despite it being the year 2013, the notion of art music is generally equated exclusively with the Western classical tradition. The American debut of I Sing Beijing at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in NYC this past Saturday, however, exemplified the rich operatic tradition in China with excerpts from several works composed within the last century. Just as exciting as the music performed was the fact that the concert was the result of intensive training in Mandarin diction and rigorous vocal coaching of a number of young up-and-coming singers from around the world.
Some background: I Sing Beijing is the brainchild of the renowned basso cantante Hao Jiang Tian. Singers from countries too numerous to mention in this review auditioned for a summer residency at the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts. There they learned to realize the beautiful potential of Mandarin as a lyric language, with its enticing articulations and expressive capacity. They also learned some of the greatest compositions in modern Chinese opera, and though these works employ Western classical techniques, they maintain a stylistic connection with the rich musical traditions of China. Thus the challenge was to learn a new language and musical style. They were joined by up-and-coming Chinese singers and have thus far given performances in Beijing and Paris. Judging from their New York concert, this rigorous training has proven quite a success.
Some musical highlights: besides tenor Thomas Glenn’s captivating singing of a selection from Siege of Tiger Mountain, his sense of character—musically and in his stage presence—was right on the money, conveying a sense of confidence without a hint of arrogance. This was perfect considering the role he was singing was a military hero during the Chinese Revolution. Siege of Tiger Mountain (also referred to as Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy) is the result of experiments in collective composition during the Cultural Revolution, and its orchestral quality unfortunately was not adequately conveyed by the New York City Opera Orchestra—they were far from together and lacking in interpretive ability. Of course given the unfamiliarity the orchestra would have with this music this can be excused a bit, though it is unfortunate that so many Western-trained players are incapable of versatility. This did not get in the way of Glenn’s performance though, and the pipa and huqin players added an exciting and confident element, really playing their hearts out. One section of the orchestra that did shine was the raucous percussion, especially the bursting energy of the woodblocks.
A light-hearted contrast was Couple Learning to Read. Julia Metzler and Brian Wahlstrom were quite adept at conveying the humorous country folk opera style, even putting on some dance moves, and the irony of the subject matter considering the concert was not lost on anyone.
Juliet Petrus sang Hu Tingjiang’s arrangement of Mayila Variations with tremendous clarity and improvisatory zest, with her vocalized laughter a particular treat and an impressive in-the-moment ending. Based on a Kazakh folksong, this piece seemed to have grown out of the Soviet socialist realism aesthetic of symphonic music based on folk melodies, and in this case was a successful use of this aesthetic. Perhaps the fact that the Western influence on Chinese composers was for a time through a Russian prism has something to do with the added difficulty of it gaining acceptance in the West (given that even Russian music is often and erroneously considered inferior to the German-centric canon).
In selections from The White-Haired Girl, one of the model operas of the Cultural Revolution, Nicole Haslett and Valdis Jansons excelled at capturing the gravitas of the subject matter with their voices. Lines like “I was dodging creditors for seven days” and “the rich and powerful are all beasts” came through with declaimed emotion. Their love duet on the last selection (“The Red Ribbon”) was touching, and the huqin solo added tremendous emotional depth. In this instance the New York City Opera did well at capturing the ominous quality of Ma Ke’s orchestration.
Ensemble numbers were another attractive feature of this concert, with the enthusiasm of several young singers bursting from the stage. While most of these were Italian standards, one great moment for me was in a duet selection from The Savage Land, composed in 1987 by Jin Xiang. Sheila Carroll and Kurt Kanazawa’s performance was attention-grabbing, but their best moment was in a sudden soft and subtle passage that made me edge forward to listen more intently.
Interspersed with the Chinese-language works were well-done selections from European opera classics. While I’ll never complain about the chance to hear some good Puccini live, I do wonder whether these were really necessary. Perhaps the intent was to gain more legitimacy for the Chinese compositions by putting them alongside European ones (and they certainly held their own). I can understand the logic behind that, but I hope in the near future this juxtaposition won’t be necessary for US audiences to appreciate Chinese-language opera.
One more thing I enjoyed about this concert: the orchestra kept up the excitement by moving right from one selection to the next, and the enthusiasm of the audience was palpable and audible. Clapping would ring out at the audience’s discretion, and applause always began before the orchestra stopped playing. For me anyway, this was a welcome contrast to the stuffiness often encountered at the Met, where people seem to forget that opera is entertainment.
Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters and the Asian Performing Arts Council have done opera audiences and performers alike a huge favor by initiating this program. Hopefully I Sing Beijing will foster greater cultural exchanges in the realm of opera in years to come and help break opera out of a Western-centric framework.
For more on I Sing Beijing, including upcoming US performances, visit http://www.isingbeijing.org.
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC and a doctoral candidate in musicology at CUNY Graduate Center.