Opera in China? You Bet!

Our bus made a sharp U-turn at the intersection and made it’s way up a steep, narrow street to the tall, handsome marble gateway telling us we had arrived at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou for the first day of the 2018 CS Music Chinese Vocal Competition. The guard gave us a friendly wave as the bus pulled through the gate, activity in the courtyard stopped, and scores of anticipating eyes turned toward the bus. Thunderous applause greeted the first of us to alight, photographers surrounded us as we climbed stairs to the plaza outside the main auditorium, and larger than life posters of each of us outlined the plaza, all of this giving us our first taste of the wonderful event about to begin. Excitement abounded.

In the days that followed, over 300 eager singers ranging in age from high school students to young artists with Master’s degrees demonstrated what appears to be a passionate, high-priority movement to cultivate bel canto singing in China. Singers from all over China participated in three age categories best described as pre-baccalaureate, master’s-seeking, and post graduate, in either musical theatre or classical genres. A highly collegial group of 14 American judges formed panels and joined forces with 3 collaborative pianists from the US to audition the singers in preliminary rounds. With very strict limits on the number of singers who could advance to the final round, the judges agreed we passed over many deserving singers.

The competition phase of the event culminated in a Hollywood-worthy spectacle of dazzling chase lights and big-screen projections complete with duo emcees hosting in Chinese and in English. The finalists in each division auditioned for all of the judges and received generous prizes. What followed, however, may well have been the emotional highlight of the event. Each of the representatives of conservatories and universities in the U.S. had been invited to provide offers of provisional admission to their institutions to singers in the competition, whether finalist or not. As each of us came to the stage to announce the recipients, it became very clear what prize the singers truly coveted. Emotions of joy and elation ran very high.

Though the organizers, CS Music from the U.S. and Libomo from China, call the event a competition, it has a distinct festival atmosphere. On the first evening, students of the musical theatre program at Shanghai Conservatory delivered an excellent concert performance of Les Miserables, indicative of Chinese singers’ keen interest in the American art form.  On the following day, the 3rd Sino-American Symposium on Vocal Education provided any opportunity for Chinese faculty and some of the American judges to speak on vital topics of interest to the student singers and colleagues alike. The judges also provided master classes and private instruction in the days following the competition.

The success of the competition and the pleasure of participating as a judge owe much to the organization of the event. The American team enjoyed “rock-star” treatment with every detail of the trip delivered in expert fashion. Our leaders made all the arrangements from airport transportation, to elegant accommodations, to meals and sight-seeing. Most of all, we had an opportunity to bond with colleagues from across the states, some of whom are long-time friends and others are newfound friends.

As one experiencing this for the first time, I have come away deeply impressed by the passion and commitment of the young Chinese singers, and their eagerness to learn and grow. The usual clichés that would describe the event as “life-changing,” “eye-opening,” or “exhilarating” seem trite. It affirmed to me the common humanity we share, the power of our art to create instant bonds of friendship, and ultimately, our responsibility to reach across any cultural distances to give of ourselves to others. The real gift is not the one I might be able to give, but the one I have been given.

Robert Hansen

Robert Hansen, DMA, is Regents’ Professor and Director of the School of Music at West Texas A&M University. Prior to his career in higher education, Hansen performed widely in opera, musical theatre, and concert. He is a member of the Singer Training Forum of Opera America, and is the Executive Director of the National Opera Association.