Vocal Exchanges across the Pacific Ocean

By staff reporter ZHOU LIN

THE mellow bel canto singing, in clearly articulated Mandarin, of an American soprano in the role of Jin Zi, heroine of the opera The Savage Land staged at the China Conservatory of Music concert hall, brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. Madame Li Daochuan, whose husband Jin Xiang was composer and director of the opera's first edition, was among those who were deeply moved. "Music has no boundaries. She is the best ‘Jin Zi' I have ever seen," Madame Li said.


The finale of Bernstein Sings America, staged at China Conservatory of Music.

Fusion of China-U.S. Cultures

The Savage Land was the first Chinese-language Western-style opera to step on the stage of a prestigious Western opera house. Early in 1992, it was performed at the Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. It was an instant success. The USA Today once reported that the successful debut of Chinese opera The Savage Land on the American stage is one of the most important events in world opera history since the 20th century.

The plot of the opera is set in 1911, in warlord-ravaged Northeastern China. The hero is Chou Hu, who escapes from wrongful imprisonment to find his family members have been brutally murdered by the landlord known as Jiao Yanwang (King of Hell), and that his fiancée Jin Zi has been forced to marry Jiao Yanwang's son Jiao Daxing, and so sets out to wreak vengeance. The theme of star-crossed lovers struggling against their destiny and the complexities of human nature are fully represented in performances that frame the distinct characters of the play's main roles.

Bernstein Sings America, performed on the same program as The Savage Land, is a revue of opera arias and stage musical songs from celebrated American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein's theater music. They are all jointly rehearsed and performed by the China Conservatory of Music and Michigan State University College of Music.

Bernstein was one of the most distinctive musicians of the 20th century. His fame derived from his long tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which began in 1959. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the U.S. to receive worldwide acclaim, and made great contributions to popularizing classical music among the youth. Bernstein's operatic style was quite different from that of European classical opera, with vibrant music and arias that have become classic love songs bestriding classical and popular music in a distinctively American vocal style.

After the China performance, vocal arts students from MSU College of Music and China Conservatory flew to East Lansing in Michigan State. The two-hour performance there on March 23 received a standing ovation on the opening night.  The audience was totally charmed by the emotional evocations of China and U.S. opera.

Professor Yang Shuguang from the China Conservatory of Music was the Chinese originator of this cultural exchange. Recalling the big event she said, "Relatives of the American performers and other audience members in East Lansing would not leave after each performance, but waited in the lobby to take photos with performers."

The opera exchange involves 26 students — 13 from MSU and 13 from the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The American Jin Zi and Chinese Chou Hu, and Chinese Jin Zi and American Chou Hu, took turns to perform on the same stage, and The Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and MSU College of Music jointly accompanied the Chinese Opera performance, so realizing the full exchange of orchestras, conductors, performers and operas.

When the American actor who performed the Chou Hu role said in Chinese: "The darkest night will be bright, and the longest road will lead to the end," the audience's applause rose to the auditorium roof. Many described the performance as the ideal fusion of China-U.S. arts and cultures.


Chinese Jin Zi and American Qiu Hu on the same stage, a perfect fusion of China-U.S. culture.


The 2015-2016 Year of China

The 2015-2016 Year of China at Michigan State University also marked the 10th anniversary of a unique vocal exchange program of MSU College of Music.

"It's simply incredible that our anniversary correlated with the university-wide, yearlong exploration of Chinese arts and culture," said MSU Professor of Voice Richard Fracker. "Everyone immediately recognized it was a natural fit." Since 2005, the MSU-China Vocal Collaboration has enabled voice students from the U.S. and China to spend time together in both countries performing and learning about each other's music and cultures.

This academic year, Fracker recognized the opportunity to link the program with Year of China celebrations and stage a premier event both in East Lansing and in Beijing.

"We're extremely excited and hope this becomes a jewel in the crown of MSU's Year of China events," said the Director of the MSU Opera Theater Melanie Helton. "It's a perfect synthesis."

Vocal performance master student Schyler Sheltrown is among those participating from MSU. Although this is her third trip with the program, she said she was still looking forward to a million new experiences.

"Singing in Chinese is always one of the coolest things," said Sheltrown, who sang a leading role. "I sang a duet with a Chinese student. It didn't really matter that we didn't speak the same language or understand each other, because we were able to come together with that piece. She took my hand at the end and we bowed together. It was amazing."

Vocal performance doctoral student Stephen Martin also participated in the exchange for the third time, assuming both a leading role on stage and in program production. Martin said, "This program has taught me so much about being a performer as well as a colleague to people of different backgrounds and cultures."

Chinese student Song Zaikuan first participated in the collaboration on the Chinese side. He then decided to come to MSU to study for a performance diploma while concurrently doing his master degree at the Chinese Conservatory.

This year, Song served as a point of liaison between American and Chinese participants. He tutored MSU cast members in Mandarin, and assisted his classmates and faculty in China with communications.

"I'm helping to make everyone's work a little easier," Song said. "I'm hoping to help my MSU friends enjoy their time in China, and my professors and friends in China to enjoy their company."

The MSU faculty arrived in China on February 28, and was joined by students on March 3. After a week of rehearsals, the American and Chinese cast performed twice at the China Conservatory of Music, and a third time at the National Center for the Performing Arts — the Beijing equivalent of the NY Metropolitan Opera.

Program members then went to East Lansing on March 13. Four performances were given at the Fairchild Theater, with MSU alumnus Youqing Yang, now a professional conductor at the China Conservatory of Music, leading the symphony orchestra.

"Our vocal exchange program is one that unleashes the creative power of diverse viewpoints and contributes to the inclusive culture of our university," Fracker said. "Everyone agrees it's a wonderful opportunity to 'bring a little bit of home' to the Chinese community here as well as to the American community living and studying in China."


Students from MSU and the China Conservatory of Music perform a song from Bernstein Sings America.


Cultural Exchanges Bring Closer Two Peoples

To the knowledge of most musicians, opera mainly comprises Western classic repertoires, for instance, The Lady of the Camellias, Carmen, Turandot, and Tosca. People seldom see Chinese operas performed overseas. Therefore, this vocal exchange program presented a rare opportunity for the world to know about Chinese opera.

The Savage Land received favorable comments from both the domestic and foreign audience, not only because of its perfect expression and rousing performance, but also because it presents the fundamental human emotions of love, hate and revenge. The opera eloquently expresses the characters' complex inner worlds through movements, arias, and compelling performances. These images struck chords with those in the audience. Chinese and American artists thus displayed the human tragicomedy of stage and real life.

"The American students spoke Chinese fluently and had a full understanding of the opera's theme and the feelings of its characters. The only challenge was to give their monologue a nuanced Chinese charm.  The theater music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein was so lively that the students naturally expressed themselves in a more contemporary style of song and dance," Yang Shuguang said. She added that she never realized that cultural exchanges had the power to unleash the full extent of her students' huge potential.