Chinese Opera Program

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Music may be the “universal language,” but that didn’t make learning to sing opera in Chinese any easier for the 20 American singers who joined China’s “I Sing Beijing” program this summer. The Associated Press chronicled the vocalists’ struggles in a recent article.

You probably remember learning to sing “Frère Jacques” and “Feliz Navidad” in school as a child. Unfortunately for the vocalists, learning to sing opera well in Mandarin is decidedly more challenging. For example, vocal coach Katherine Chu told the AP:

“Singers are already sensitive to pitch, which is a big advantage in learning Mandarin. But certain words, like ‘zi’ and ‘zhi,’ aren’t singer-friendly. These words can tighten the jaw so we have to teach them how to carry the tones.”

And there’s more…Mandarin includes sounds that aren’t even found in English as well as different intonation patterns, making it quite difficult to master.

Still, the vocalists who completed the “I Sing Beijing” program were up to the task and made their Chinese début last week at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing.

The “I Sing Beijing” program was funded by the Chinese government, who selected Chinese-American opera singer Hao Jiang Tian to be its leader. Tian, a former Chinese factory worker, is now an international opera star. He explained the purpose of the program to the AP:

“You could say it’s an experiment of sorts. We hope it will inspire Western singers and bring Chinese modern opera onto the world stage.”

That may be the official goal, but Tian also told the BBC that he has a personal goal of his own: helping to bridge the cultural gap between China and the West by enabling the young students to learn about China first-hand:

“Positive, negative, good or bad – I just want to them to take whatever they get from this trip back home to share with their friends and family.”