Jul 26, 2017
Crisscrossed with canals and home to classic gardens that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Suzhou is renowned as the Venice of the East. The ancient city also has a rich musical tradition, being the home of Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, and laying claim to Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower), the popular folk song that dates to the 18th century. (The jasmine is the symbol of Suzhou.) Suzhou is not just a repository for past glories however, as it boasts a vibrant, diverse cultural scene befitting one of China's most prosperous cities. Amongst the most sparkling gems in its cultural crown is undoubtedly the iSING! International Young Artists Festival, which returns this month for its fourth season on Jinji Lake.
iSING! is a training program for aspiring young opera singers from around the world founded in 2011 by the internationally renowned singer, Tian Haojiang and his wife, Martha Liao, who serves as the festival's general manager. Liao is also the founder of the Asian Performing Arts Council (APAC), which is dedicated to fostering cultural exchanges between the United States and Asia. Since its founding in 1986, the council has assisted over 100 Chinese performing artists from all disciplines – instrumentalists, composers, singers, dancers and traditional Chinese musicians – in their training and career development. To further its mission, APAC founded I SING BEIJING (the name change came with the move to Suzhou in 2014), the first festival in China dedicated solely to the vocal arts. It continues to cosponsor the festival with the Suzhou Industrial Park Education Development & Investment Co., LTD, the highly successful Sino-Singaporean international enterprise zone.
Born in Beijing, Tian is one of world's leading opera singers, earning plaudits for both his elegant basso cantante (literally 'singing' bass as opposed to the deep-voiced basso profundo) and his finely honed acting. His career took off after his 1991 debut at New York City's Metropolitan Opera and he has since sung over 1,300 performances in over 40 operas around the world. Since its opening in 2008, Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has become a second artistic home to him. Tian's recent appearances there have been in Puccini's Turandot, Verdi's Simon Bocconegra and Macbeth (both starring the legendary tenor Plácido Domingo), and in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in April of this year.
Tian has also sung in the premieres of several of the ever-growing number of modern Chinese operas. These include Tan Dun's The First Emperor at the Met in 2006, Guo Wenjing's Rickshaw Boy at the NCPA in 2014, and the title role in Tang Jianping's Jianzhen's Journey to Japan in 2016, which was commissioned and produced by Jiangsu Performing Arts Group.
A number of factors prompted Tian and Liao to launch iSING! First, there was Tian's frustration that people outside of China know so little about his country and its history, let alone its rich musical tradition. Nonetheless, colleagues everywhere were curious about opportunities in China as Western classical music gained popularity there, new concert halls and opera houses were being built, and Western operas presented for the first time in decades. Tian also knew firsthand that the repertoire was also expanding, as composers turned to Chinese literature and history for inspiration, often with librettos in Mandarin, a language that few, if any Western singers knew. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Tian and Liao, young Chinese singers needed exposure to voice teachers and coaches of the highest caliber to compete globally.
Katherine Chu is keenly aware of this dynamic, having worked as a coach/pianist/conductor for over two decades on the international opera circuit, including 10 years at the Met. Currently she holds key positions with the newly formed Suzhou Symphony Orchestra and the NCPA, while also serving as iSING!'s Director of Programming. Chu notes that for many of the participants, but particularly those from China, working with iSING!'s team of international teachers, coaches, stage directors and conductors completely changes their concept of what it is to be a singer and performer due to the depth, sophistication and intensity of the training they receive there. While their Western counterparts are in her words, "Out of their comfort zone in every sense, as they cope with a new culture, begin to learn Mandarin, and learn how to sing in it."
Yu Guanqun, Wang Yungpeng and Juliet Petrus are among iSING!'s success stories. In 2011, Yu had been in Italy for 10 years with some success, but earning little money. The soprano thought of giving up singing and returning home, but instead accepted the invitation to participate in the new program. What she learned there jump-started her career. "The idea of how to prepare a roll, I learned at "iSING! It opened my eyes and what I learned there still influences how I interpret a character." She later worked with iSING!'s coaches to prepare for her successful 2013 Met debut as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore, which launched her international career.
Hailed as one of “opera’s exciting new voices,” baritone Wang Yunpeng had just completed his studies at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and was heading to New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music when he trained with the festival in its first season. He describes iSING! as a two-way cultural and musical exchange; the Chinese singers learned from observing and working with the more experienced singers from other parts of the world, while the Chinese singers provided insights into their country's music and culture in return. What he values most however, was the encouragement "to achieve something bigger than we thought possible." Wang too now sings at the Met.
The American lyric coloratura soprano Juliet Petrus describes her two summers with iSING! as "magical and life altering". The experience ignited a passion in her for all things Chinese. She has since returned repeatedly to China to study the language, as well as to perform and teach. These experiences laid the groundwork for her recording, A Great Distance: Collection of Chinese and American Art Song with pianist Lydia Qui. She gives all the credit to iSING! “Without the exposure to Chinese music and language, and the mentoring I received there, I would not find myself where I am at professionally.”
iSING! 2017 will kick off with a gala concert on July 30, 2017 at the Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre. The first half, entitled 'A Day in the Life of iSING! – The Learning Experience', will be a humorous depiction of the program's unique, cross-cultural approach with its challenges, frustrations and triumphs, both great and small. In addition to arias and ensembles from classical operas, the second half will feature Chinese folk songs, including an arrangement of The Rippling River of Kangding by Wei Fugen, one of iSING!'s coach/pianists. Wei is on the faculty of the Shanghai Conservatory and had the distinction of performing at the reception for former US President Barack Obama hosted by President Hu Jintao of China in 2011.
A fully staged production of Puccini's comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi, a first for iSING!, will be the highlight of the festival's closing concert at the Grand Theater on August 27, 2017. Arias and ensembles from modern Chinese operas will round out the program. Opera lovers in Nanjing will also be able to enjoy the iSING! finale on August 29, 2017 at the new Jiangsu Grand Theatre, the largest of the many spectacular performing arts centers built in China in the past 10 years.
For opera lovers, iSING! offers the opportunity to enjoy a mix of music unique to the world of opera and the chance to hear young singers who may just be on the verge of a major international opera career. It will not be the first, and certainly not the last time that a career was launched at iSING!
For more information on the iSING! International Young Artists Festival and ticket information, please click here https://www.isingfestival.org.
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