Bringing East to West : A Conversation with Bass Hao Jiang Tian

The tenor gets the girls, but the bass gets the roles, or so the saying goes. Indeed, bass Hao Jiang Tian has encountered no shortage of roles. He has sung more than 50 roles worldwide, 26 at the Metropolitan Opera alone, where he began his career in 1991 and has appeared every season since, more than 300 times to date. That includes, by the end of this Met season, 34 King Timurs—Puccini’s oh-so-Italian conception of an Asian character.

Tian is the first Chinese-born man to sustain a major career in grand opera yet he’s waited a lifetime to be able to bring a real Chinese character to Western opera stages through music by a modern Chinese composer. For a man who grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, became an American citizen, and began his largely Italian opera career relatively late in life, this year he and his world are completely in sync.

I met Tian in Shanghai in August 2002, where my husband and I were on assignment from the New York Times. We were writing a series about Itzhak Perlman’s music program for young musicians, which was visiting the Shanghai Conservatory. We could hardly miss the posters for Tian’s Shanghai recital, and we were delighted to be introduced to him and to sip late-afternoon cocktails together in the cool hotel lobby on a stifling late-summer day. Immediately we were mesmerized, as much by his deep, mellifluous speaking voice as by his picaresque tales of his childhood. The next night we were so taken by his singing voice, his musicianship, and his rapport with his audience at the sold-out recital that we ended up profiling Tian for the “Times” during the fall opera season.

As we came to know him back in New York City, Tian began to confide his concerns about his future. He was 48 years old at the time, not old for a bass, but he felt an inchoate yearning for something new—a new direction, a new challenge inside or outside of opera—as he approached his 50th birthday.

Fast forward four years. It was well after midnight in late December 2006, following the second performance of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, which had its world premiere the week before at the Met. “I think this year has been the peak of my career,” he said, a little dazed. Tian had sung the role of General Wang opposite Plácido Domingo in the title role. We were gazing out the window at the bright lights of Lincoln Center from the New York apartment he shares with his wife, Martha Liao, a springer spaniel named Niu Niu, and an opera-ready parrot named Luke on a high floor just steps from the Met.

Tian made his Met debut in La fanciulla del West starring Plácido Domingo. Now, as we spoke, Domingo himself was at the buffet table, biting into Martha’s world-famous Peking duck. Elizabeth Futral, who sang Princess Yue Yang in The First Emperor, stood with her husband and their fully laden plates of homemade Chinese food, while Tan Dun and his wife, Jane Huang, held forth on the couch. Everybody was excited and animated, chattering on about how well the second performance of the opera had been received, compared with opening night.

“Yes,” Tian repeated, “the peak of my career.”

The Beijing-born basso cantante will sing in yet another world premiere of a Chinese work, Poet Li Bai, at Central City Opera in Colorado in July 2007. By composer Guo Wenjing, written in Chinese, this one-act, 12-scene opera is another giant leap for Tian: He and Martha are spearheading the production, which they hope will be the first of many new Chinese works for which they will help to find collaborators in the West. Already this season he’s had a Turandot in Chicago, and a Mozart Requiem in Beijing. Between the two premieres, he has a Nabucco in Ancona, a Turandot at the Met, “Trovatore” at San Diego, a Poet Li Bai workshop in Beijing, and soon after, a presentation at Asia Society in New York City. This being the era of the Chinese in grand opera, he’s also working with composer Stewart Wallace to develop the bass role—the only male character—for Wallace’s opera based on Amy Tan’s Bonesetter’s Daughter, set to premiere in San Francisco in 2008.

Two world premieres within six months, both by Chinese composers with Chinese themes, not to mention a new CD of his favorite Bel Canto arias, issued by Naxos last fall. If these accomplishments do not exactly represent the fulfillment of all Tian’s dreams, it’s only because even as late as age 22, when he was in his seventh year working six days a week operating a steel-cutting machine at the Beijing Boiler Factory, he’d never heard of Western opera.

Tian’s parents were both musicians in the People’s Liberation Army—his father a conductor, his mother a composer—but he had no interest in music as a boy.

“The happiest day in my life was when my piano teacher was arrested for being a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. And he had no compunctions against destroying his parents’ classical record collection when Western music was banned. The boy, finished with music once and for all after three miserable years at the piano, happily smashed them all to smithereens.

Even his loyal Communist parents were banished to the countryside, however, for “political reeducation.” Tian spent his teens alone in the one tiny room that remained after their apartment was carved up to accommodate other families. His roommate was the old, reviled piano. He started to bang on the piano keys, sometimes with chopsticks, even with his feet. Soon he was playing by ear and imagining himself a great musician.

The neighbors disagreed with his assessment. One day Tian came home to find the piano missing but his obsession with music, and the inner freedom he discovered in expressing himself musically, continued. At school he taught himself accordion and became a member of the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team, an ensemble much like that his parents belonged to in the military.

Yet, as always with him, it was yuan—the Chinese word for fate—that turned him into a serious singer. On a day off from the factory he bicycled to a building where a friend lived, and shouted up to him on the fifth floor. A man stuck his head out of a lower floor and called out, “Are you a singer? You have a big voice.”

A virtual lifetime later, a young musical aspirant in China last fall asked Tian what Bel Canto is. He said he discovered Bel Canto technique the fateful day he called up to his friend in the apartment building—at the back of his open throat.

The man in the window was a professional singer. Through his parents’ musical connections he began vocal training, practicing on the four-hour round-trip commute to and from the factory and often in the woods behind it (when he feigned stomach troubles that his bosses believed necessitated long trips to the bathroom).

In 1976, Mao’s wife, Jiang Ching, who tightly controlled all cultural affairs throughout China during the Cultural Revolution, announced auditions for a new class of revolutionary performers who would study at the Central Conservatory. Tian won the only place for a singer from the Beijing area. Within the year, Mao died, and musical training returned to its previous high standards.

Tian auditioned to study with Italian baritone Gino Bechi, the first Western opera singer allowed to teach in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution. Bechi said he would teach Tian only if he wanted to sing opera. Not knowing what that meant, Tian said sure, that’s what he wanted. So Bechi started him on arguably the most difficult work in the bass repertoire: King Philip’s aria from Act 4 of Don Carlo!

Mostly, Tian sang choral works with the Central Philharmonic Society and, with his long hair and bell bottoms, performed pop and American folk music along with friends—wiggling his hips à la Elvis—to the horror of the Party’s cultural cadres. He was constantly under scrutiny and knew he had to get out of the country. In 1983 he was finally able to join his fiancée at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. The only English he’d ever learned was “I love Chairman Mao.”

Tian made his opera debut in a school production of Susannah.

“I had only one phrase to sing, a total of seven words, but the hard part for me was the acting,” he recounted. “I knew that the music should be in a singer’s body as well as the voice, but for a Chinese singer faced with a whole new range of emotion and physical expression, the Western concept of self-expression was agony.”

Now, when Tian returns to China, where there is a rich pool of talent and ambition to make it on the world’s stages, he stresses the importance of acting and opening up to an expressive tradition that is not native to the Chinese singers’ culture. While in Denver, however, he had an epiphany of sorts. “I asked myself: What did I have to fear in opening myself up to this art form in front of everybody, since I had gone through so much pain and terror and emotional experience in my life already?”

To Tian’s great credit, he is the first Chinese singer to be cast in many of the roles in his repertoire. Early on, however, it looked like he would just be singing pop favorites at a piano bar in a Denver Chinese restaurant, a regular paying gig he got after graduation. He sang a few small roles with Opera Colorado. Tian and his first wife split up in part over their career choices; she’d seen the lack of dollar signs on the wall and headed for accounting. His friend Martha Liao urged him to keep trying. Dr. Liao, a Hong Kong-raised, U.S.-educated geneticist, had been helpful to both Tian and his now ex-wife.

At Martha’s urging, Tian gave himself a two-year deadline to work as hard as he could to break into opera. He went to New York City for lessons and auditions whenever he had enough money. Amazingly, with almost no stage experience, in 1991 he scored a year’s contract at the Met.

Tian married Martha and moved to New York City. Instead of returning to Denver the next year, however, or to the Met for another year, he decided to try for a career on the world stages. Soon Martha left her genetics work to travel and work with her husband (and to cook Peking duck, even in a hotel room). She also founded, while still in Colorado, Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, which helps sponsor work from the Far East in that state and elsewhere. Now, Tian and Martha, along with their close friends John and Anna Sie, have founded Bel Canto International, which works to foster Chinese singers and works. Both of these organizations are involved with Central City Opera in bringing Poet Li Bai to the stage.

That project began when Martha’s sister Diana Liao, then head of United Nations interpreters, began to write the libretto one rainy vacation week in Jamaica some six years ago. The Chinese revere their ancient poets as perhaps no other nation does, and Diana knew that Li Bai was one of Tian’s favorites. (The text for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is derived from a Li Bai poem.) She gave Tian the completed libretto as a gift, and almost immediately he knew he wanted to create an opera from it.

Meanwhile, Tan Dun, Tian’s friend and contemporary from their Beijing days, had long been working on his Met commission for The First Emperor, the avant-garde composer’s largest commission. It was also the Met’s first-ever collaboration with a Chinese music and production team. Having worked with Tan Dun on several projects over the last few years, Tian gladly accepted the Met’s offer to sing the principal bass role in the new opera. “It was a joy to work on a truly Chinese character,” he said.

Tan Dun frequently called him while the composer was writing the opera, to have Tian try out various passages on the phone for him but long before Tian ever had his vocal part, he was already hard at work. “I do lots of homework before I learn the music,” Tian said. “I study the background of the opera, the history of the period.”

In preparation for both Poet Li Bai and The First Emperor, Tian and Martha traveled with friends along the old Silk Road in northwestern China. “When the Li Bai was in his 20s, he traveled a lot along the Silk Road. I needed to feel him, to step in his footprints, and I followed the footsteps of the first emperor too.”

For his Western roles, Tian has been a frequent visitor to museums. “From paintings and sculptures of the particular historical periods I learn how people looked and held their bodies, the expressions of their eyes.” When they came to the terminus of the Silk Road in Xian, the ancient capital where Tan Dun’s opera takes place: “There I was, standing face to face with those life-size terracotta soldiers who guard the emperor’s tomb, each of whom has a different expression,” Tian said. “I studied their gestures, their eyes, their stance. This was very important for me. General Wang’s part is not huge, but the singing has to convey his military power.”

It was not difficult for him to learn the part, having sung Tan Dun’s music before. He was unable to attend two First Emperor workshops, however, and did not immediately make use of the resulting recordings. “I don’t want to be influenced by recordings until I understand the role, the music, the words, even for a new work,” he said. “Singers should always be able to see the sound from the score, to imagine it, to try it on the piano themselves.” Of course, for a new work, once it is in rehearsal, “there is nothing greater than working with the composer to shape the part—the phrases, the breathing, the notes, the words—to create something new for the world.”

Tian faced three major challenges in creating this role. First was language. “I speak English, but English is not an easy language for me to sing. It is difficult for me to place the voice and to find the rhythm.” Then there was Tan Dun’s penchant for going to the extremes of a singer’s voice. “The range is very high and very low. I have 39 high Es in this opera. In a Verdi opera I’ll have a few, plus two to three Fs. Tan Dun wants to push the audience to the edge, to excite them and I found out I could do it. In every work I like to find out a little more about myself and my potential, in my mind, my heart, my voice.” Plácido Domingo is his role model, always learning, always asking questions, Tian said.

Finally, there were the constant changes to his part, forcing him to relearn his arias as late as the very night of the premiere.

“In my big aria, Tan Dun clipped a little here, cut a little there, in five different places, right before the final dress rehearsal. I had to have it down pat within 12 hours, which also included my time to sleep. I was up every half hour all night long. I kept dreaming I was singing it the old way,” he said, grimacing.

The production made one change in staging after the final dress, which Tian found easy to remember, thanks to a visualization trick he uses. “I change the screen images I have in my head of myself on stage, as if watching myself in a movie from the audience.”

Although the opera was criticized harshly after its opening night, the singers were generally lauded. When Tian does get a bad review—as he did for Luisa Miller in 2001—he deals with it by looking at it both from the critic’s and his own point of view. “If you agree with the critic, correct the problem for the next performance. You have to be positive always,” he said. And if a review is unfair, just let it go. Don’t start trying to explain to everyone. “It’s just one person’s opinion. If you keep mulling it over, it will affect your subsequent performances. You have to be a real artist, which means you must be absolutely prepared. Always!”

Poet Li Bai will be Tian’s first title role. It is a thoroughly Chinese modern opera in all ways, language included. He and Martha were ecstatic when composer Guo Wenjing agreed to take it on. Guo is quite well known in China and increasingly in the West (his Night Banquet, a chamber opera, was well received at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002). Martha is the executive producer, overseeing sets and costumes, all being created in Beijing.

“I’ve been back and forth to Beijing five times already this year, more than I ever visited since I left in 1983,” Tian laughed. Last year the two bought an apartment there, in part to oversee the production when they are there. They had a backer in Beijing early on, until he figured out that he wasn’t going to make a profit on it. China is in an entrepreneurial frenzy right now, with apparently little appreciation for or understanding of the nonprofit arts world. “So we decided to go out to the West, and right away Central City Opera was very responsive, especially after they heard Guo Wenjing’s music,” Tian said. “Pat Pearce is a very progressive, high-minded general director and it’s perfect timing for a collaboration, since this summer will be Central City’s 75th anniversary and APAC’s 20th. Plus, it’s so high up in the mountains outside of Denver, closer to the moon, that it’s really the perfect place for Poet Li Bai to make a first appearance, since Li Bai has a love affair with the moon.”

The moon’s a soprano, so it could be said that Tian will finally get the girl on stage as well as the role. In that way and so many others, including the scope of the work and the size of the production, the opera will be entirely different from The First Emperor, in which he almost gets the girl.

The chorus will consist of voice students from the Lamont School of Music, “which is particularly meaningful for me,” he says. And the second and third casts will include Chinese singers Tian and Martha have been auditioning in Beijing, singers who will be able to perform in the opera as it travels throughout the world. Poet Li Bai is not intended to be solely a vehicle for Tian. He wants to send this modern Chinese opera—and perhaps many others—out into the world.

“I’m interested in modern opera and modern art, as a singer, as a director, a producer,” and always as a mentor for young singers. Tian is also looking for new ways to approach an audience, combining many styles of music, from opera to folk. “To give classical music long life, we must explore new concepts,” he said.

He’ll always be performing, as he sees it, much like his mother, who at age 83 sang a song last fall at Tian’s recital in Jincheng, her old home town that she wrote during World War II.

“When I’m preparing for a role maybe I push myself too hard,” Tian reflected. “I often feel I am not ready, and I’m not happy with myself. But my greatest enjoyment in life comes when the curtain opens, I’m in my tails or my costume, in my makeup, wearing my wig . . .” He paused, smiling gently. “For every opera, every aria, every song, I am always in character. I just cannot describe how I enjoy every single second when I am singing that character on stage.”

Lois B Morris

Lois B. Morris is cowriting Tian’s memoir with him, currently subtitled “From Mao to the Met,” to be published by John Wiley & Sons in association with Lincoln Center in 2008. She and her husband, Robert Lipsyte, write together on classical music and opera for the New York Times. She also writes books (including The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Love, and Act the Way You Do, with John M. Oldham M.D.), a magazine column (“Mood News,” in Allure), and articles about psychology and health.