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Students received an unexpected cultural and musical treat when the founder of I Sing Beijing stopped by the Lexington School for the Cultural and Performing Arts Feb. 20 in between the group’s U.S. debut at the Lincoln Center in New York and a concert at the University of Kentucky.
While the world’s greatest operas have been sung in Italian, German, French and English, artistic director Hao Jiang Tian has introduced a new lyric language: Mandarin. Tian, who is a Beijing native and a veteran bass with the Metropolitan Opera, trains top singers from around the world at the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts in China. Hundreds of hopefuls audition for I Sing Beijing, and only 20 graduate-level and young professionals are selected each year.
“I was amazed at how these young, rising stars were able to master the ‘sound’ of Chinese so well in a short period of time. Even if you teach a European language, what a great activity for students to learn about the intricacies of cross-cultural competence,” said Alicia Vinson, world languages immersion program coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools, who set up the SCAPA visit.
Along with Tian, three singers performed samples during the informal 45-minute school program – from the latest Mandarin piece they’ve learned to a Mozart classic to a modern tune.
“Growing up, I used to sing rock music and still do. Music is music. As long as you do it with passion and tell a story, you’ll touch people,” said Brian Wahlstrom, who shared a familiar snippet of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
The group – none of whom knew much about China before joining I Sing Beijing – agreed that singing in Mandarin is tricky. For instance, variation in tones can change the meaning of words.
“You’ve got to learn the language and know what you’re saying before you turn to the music,” Wahlstrom said. “It was very overwhelming at first but very exciting. The East, it’s not the same roots, not the same culture.”
“I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and didn’t learn about opera until college,” he added. “It’s the most complete way to tell a story musically.”
I Sing Beijing presents some of the most beautiful Western arias, sung in Mandarin, along with some of China’s best contemporary operas. The goal is to enrich the arts with a more global perspective and promote understanding and exchange between China and the West. The Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning sponsored the school presentation.
While SCAPA does not offer Chinese among its world languages, all the students – particularly the voice majors – could appreciate I Sing Beijing and its members’ accomplishments. “It’s an awesome experience for the kids to see what’s out there. It exposes them to something they may not have thought about,” said Principal Beth Randolph.