Tian Haojiang, renowed Chinese-American Opera Star

Tian Haojiang is an internationally renowned opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He has earned worldwide recognition as one of today’s most talented basso cantantes, singing over 1300 performances of 40 operatic roles worldwide.

Tian Haojiang

Confucius Institute Reporters
Zhang Rui and Deng Danfeng
 Tian Haojiang is the internationally-renowned bass cantante. He was enrolled in the Central Conservatory of Music, China in 1977 and went to America for further study in 1983. In 1991 he was invited to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City where he has been now for 19 years. He was also invited to perform in over 30 famous opera houses all over the world. So far, he has sung more than 1,300 performances of 40 operatic roles worldwide. His vocal talent has won him great acclaim as “the most popular and greatest Chinese singer at the Met”.

One day in the summer of 1975, a 20-year-old boiler worker, standing outside of a residential building in Beijing, was calling out loudly the name of his friend living on the third floor of the building; suddenly the windows of the fourth floor were pushed open and a vocal professor called him to come up and have a talk. The professor told the young man: “Singing is the career that best suits you.” Thus the young man’s singing life started. He is Tian Haojiang, the famous opera star residing in the U.S.

From a Beijing boiler factory to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, from an ordinary boiler worker to an internationally renowned singer, Tian Haojiang has created a Chinese miracle with his own efforts. Pavarotti once said, “Now China has its own best basso cantante, and he is Tian Haojiang.” A feature article about Tian Haojiang in the New York Times said, “The reason for Tian’s success lies in his experience, and his experience itself is an opera.”

It has long been Tian Haojiang’s dream to make Chinese songs accepted by the world. For many years, he always sung Chinese songs with great emotion at every one of his solo concerts. He and his wife Liao Yinghua also established a non-profit art organization to assist Chinese young singers to further their studies abroad. Tian Haojiang, who has been living abroad for many years, is having a deepening sense that some sort of power is pulling him back to his motherland. Recently, he came back to Beijing due to a joint project with Hanban called “Project for Young International Singers to Sing Chinese Songs”, and he accepted this exclusive interview.

Tian Haojiang
Tian Haojiang played the priest Oroveso in Norma by famous Italian composer Bellini.


REPORTER: It’s said that you could hardly speak English when you first got to the U.S., but now you can sing opera in many different languages. Would you like to share with us your experience of learning foreign languages?

TIAN HAOJIANG: When I first got to the U.S., I could only say four English words: “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you”, and “Bye-bye”. I remember when I went through the American customs, a customs officer asked me, “Is your luggage overweight?” I didn’t know what he was saying at that moment, and I just said, “Yes. Yes.” e officer said to me, “Then we have to fine you.” And I said, “Yes. Yes.” en he fined me 15 dollars. I only had 50 dollars on me at that time.

When I was at the University of Denver, I studied singing and worked very hard on English. Many people say that there are some secrets of learning a language. But as for me, learning a language is just a process of word-byword accumulation. Besides, singing does help me learn a foreign language. As songs have rhythms, high notes and low notes, they help me memorize a word or a sentence. From the perspective of song writing, the most important words are usually placed in the positions of high notes or stressed notes, which also helps me to memorize them more clearly. For example, when singing the sentence “I’ll kill you” in Italian opera, the word “kill” is stressed. Another example is “I love you”. The word “love” is always put in the most beautiful part of the melody. I have learned many words by singing and I suggest you also have a try learning a language in this way.

Tian Haojiang
Tian Haojiang (left) learned music under the instruction of his mother during his childhood.

I would like to share with you another tip for learning a language. at is to open your mouth to speak bravely and not be afraid of making a mistake, for mistakes can help us remember even better. When I was in school I had a part-time job in a restaurant. Once, a guest asked me for ICE, I heard RICE and I asked him what kind of rice he wanted — fried rice or steamed rice. And I also told him that he should pay for the rice. The customer got very angry at me. After that, I bore in my mind those two words and never forget them.

“When I sing Chinese songs, my whole self can be immersed in singing. Only at such a time can the audience see the marvelous charm of a national culture reected by the singer”.

REPORTER: We all know not every student of a vocal department can become a singer, especially a world famous singer like you. We just want to know how you made this happen.

TIAN HAOJIANG: It is impossible to start your singing career immediately after graduation. The door of the opera house will not just be there open to you, and the contract will not be waiting for you either. After graduation, I sang in restaurants, did some cleaning jobs, and my savings in the bank was never over 200 dollars. Even so, I never gave up my opera dream. Music has always been the force supporting me and motivating me. When I had some money, I went to New York to have music lessons, no matter how expensive the tuition fee is and to watch some famous singers’ performance, learn their singing styles, and better understand the opera roles. From those lessons and concerts I learned that breath, pronunciation, and opening the throat were very important in opera singing. And I came to realize that music was everywhere, between every note, even in a rest note.

At the age of 36, I signed with the Metropolitan Opera. That was the turning point in my life. I felt so lucky to get that opportunity. For seven to eight years before that time, I had auditioned in many places and all I had gotten were minor roles. But no matter how small my part was, I did a lot of preparation work in advance, making different marks in different colors on the music score. After my first performance at the Met, Placido Domingo came to me and said, “You have a really beautiful voice.” Can you imagine that? As long as you sing with all your heart, a world famous singer can even notice you. After my first performance at the Met, Domingo took me by one hand and said to the musicians present, “He is a Chinese musician, and I believe he will have a great future.” In the years after that, I had the great pleasure of performing with him in eight operas. Working with famous singers and conductors, I have learned a lot from them and at the same time, I have gotten more opportunities.

“In my opinion, a really powerful country should also have cultural primacy. What I can do is education or communication work, helping more Chinese become interested in music and art.”.

REPORTER: As a singer from the East, in your opinion what is the most difficult in achieving success on the stage of the Western opera house?

TIAN HAOJIANG: Of course you must sing well, and you should also know what you are singing. The most difficult is that you should behave like a Westerner on the stage. You have to continue to observe others and get to know the culture behind the gestures and behaviors. For example, in the West it is very common for people to hug and touch cheeks to greet each other, but it is hard for the Chinese to get used to. When I play the roles of the Westerners on the stage, I need to kiss or hug sometimes. It took me a long time to make these gestures natural. I got to know that only when I made these gestures a part of my daily manners could I look natural in doing them on the stage. So I think that it is very important to know and respect the social customs of the foreign culture; when learning a foreign language, we should also learn its culture.

Tian Haojiang
At Verona Summer Opera Festival, Tian Haojiang played the deposed King Timur in the famous opera Turandot.

REPORTER: You have performed alongside stars such as Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras and the like for more times than any other Chinese singers. What have you gotten from those experiences?

TIAN HAOJIANG: I find that every star is very dedicated to his work. For example, Domingo is a very hard working person. Before the performance of the opera The First Emperor of Qin Dynasty (B C221-BC 207), even after every rehearsal he still asked an opera coach to help him work on such things as the language, music, rhythm, character of the role, history and so on for another two to three hours. He wanted to know all the things. He was always the best prepared singer. A successful person has given much more effort than the others in studying and preparation process. On the stage, Domingo is so devoted to his role that throughout the opera he spares no efforts in immersing himself in the atmosphere of the story and the emotions of the character, trying to give the audience the most beautiful voice and the most wonderful performance. Many singers may have less strong emotions when they have their backs to the audience, but even when Domingo has his back to the audience, you can still sense his emotion. One time I had a duet with him in Washington; he faced me with his back toward the audience. I saw the fire in his eyes which impressed me very much. That look in his eyes inspired my spirit and raised my singing level. He is a really great master of the art.

Besides, Domingo feels no shame in learning from his inferiors. His modesty makes him an even greater master of art. For example, in one play, he needed to say “中 (zhong) 国 (guó) (China)” in Chinese; it is difficult for Westerners to achieve the standard pronunciation of this word. He just asked me time and time again to listen whether his pronunciation was correct. Even when I thought his pronunciation was very good, he still asked me to listen to him from a distance to make sure that he could be clearly and correctly heard by all the audience. For the single word “中 (zhong)国(guó) (China)”, I don’t know how many times I have taught him. From this you can see how serious he is about his work.

REPORTER: You have performed in the opera “ 茶 (chá) (Tea)” which tells a Chinese story in English. Some people described it as “a cup of tea made with Chinese tea leaves but brewed with foreign water”. How do you feel when you sing a Chinese story in English?

TIAN HAOJIANG: In fact, I think that if the opera is a Chinese story we should use Chinese, otherwise the singers may feel it difficult to express their feelings in a natural and direct way. When a Chinese composer writes an opera about Chinese culture, it is natural to use Chinese when performing it on the stage. So when it came to the opera “是 (shi) 先(xian) (ǐ l) 百 (bái) (Poet Li Bai)”, we had a discussion about what language to use, all agreed that Chinese should be used because in the opera there are many of Li Bai’s poems. If we used English, it wouldn’t feel right as if we were having Chinese porridge with a Western fork.

REPORTER: You have performed in other Chinese-themed operas like “茶(chá) (Tea)”, “亲 (qín) (sh)黄 (huáng) (The First Emperor of Qin Dynasty)”, and “ 是 (shi) 先 (xian) (ǐ l) 百(bái) (Poet Li Bai)”. Have you thought of bringing into the opera more Chinese elements to be shown to the world?

TIAN HAOJIANG: Yes. I want to play a role of a contemporary Chinese figure. I hope the Westerners can have a better understanding of China. But currently most of the Chinese-themed operas take place in ancient times. It is high time for the world to see the modern China. I don’t care what role I will play, a farmer or a cleaner. I just want to depict the character vividly in a moving story. In China more attempts of this kind have been made. For instance, the opera “想 (xiang) 寸  (cun) (n) 叫 (jiào) 是(shi) (The Village School Mistress)” is being rehearsed in the National Grand eater. I hope I can see it in Beijing.

Tian Haojiang
Tian Haojiang

REPORTER: It’s been said that every time you have a solo concert abroad, you sing at least two Chinese songs. What are the songs you have sung the most?

TIAN HAOJIANG: The songs I have sung for the most times are “满(mǎn)江(jiāng)红(hóng) (The Whole River Red)”, “祖(zǔ)国(guó)慈(cí)祥(xiáng)的(de)母(mǔ)亲(qīn) (Motherland, Our Loving Mother )”, and “龙(lóng) 的(de) 传(chuán)人(rén) (Descendants of the Dragon)”. Sometimes, I just sing some folksongs like “凤(fèng ) 阳(yáng) 花(huā) 鼓(gǔ) (Fengyang Flower-Drum)”. BeforeI sing a Chinese song, I tell the Western audience the meaning of the song.For example, before I sing “满(mǎn) 江(jiāng) 红(hóng) (The Whole River Red )”, I tell the story of Yue Fei. Once one of the members of the audience who had attended my concert ten years earlier, told me that he still remembered what song I sang at that concert and what the song was about. From that I came to realize how great an influence asong can have. There is a man from theU.S. who has been my fan for 20 years.Every time he sees me, he says he wants to hear me sing “祖(zǔ) 国(guó),慈(cí) 祥(xiáng) 的(de) 母(mǔ)亲(qīn) (Motherland, Our Loving Mother)”. Although he said he just briefly knew the main idea of the song, every time he hears me singing it he is almost moved to tears.I know no matter how many Western roles I have performed and no matter how many Western songs I have sung,only when I sing Chinese songs can my whole self be immersed in singing. Only at such a time can the audience see the marvelous charm of a national culture reflected by the singer.

REPORTER: Next year, you and Hanban are going to sponsor a project called “Project for Young International Singers to Sing Chinese Songs”. What made you think of taking Western singers to China to learn Chinese songs?

TIAN HAOJIANG: Actually this is the wish of the Western singers. In recent years, more and more people including directors, conductors, and singers have asked me, “Tian, can you take me to perform in China?” They are all very curious about China, wondering what China is like. I hope through this project, through the singing of theseWestern singers our language and culture can be introduced to many other parts of the world.

REPORTER: How will this project be implemented?

TIAN HAOJIANG: The first training program will be held in July next year. Through the auditions all over America, we will select some excellent, promising professional or would-be professional singers. Then these singers will come to Beijing for one-month training program, major courses including Chinese language, excerpts from Chinese operas and soon. There will also be many lessons of comparative art. For example, what are the differences between Chinese and Western songs when both reflect love, sorrow, and yearning? We can compare the duets of father and daughter in both the Chinese opera “白(bái)毛 (máo)女(nǚ) (The White-Haired Girl)” and the Italian opera“Rigoletto”. In addition, we can compare Western opera with Chinese Beijing opera, both of which have a history of over 500 years. In theWestern opera, there are tenors and sopranos. In Beijing opera there are “青(qīng) 衣(yī)” (usually a faithful wife role, lover or maiden in distress) and “小(xiǎo) 生 (shēng)” (usually a young scholar or lover role). By listening to recordings and watching some performances, we can find both of these two types of operas have some similarities and differences which can be quite interesting. The aim of this training program is to teach every member to sing well at least one Chinese art song and one excerpt from a modern Chinese opera,to learn some simple conversations in Chinese, and, more importantly, to know more about China. We do hope that they can take what they learn here back to other Western musicians. If one day some of them become world famous singers, then the influence of Chinese songs can be even greater.

REPORTER: You once said that your biggest dream was to perform at the Metropolitan Opera when you first went to the U.S. Now you are a very successful singer of international fame. What’s your biggest dream of today?

TIAN HAOJIANG: My autobiography is entitled “From Mao to the Met”, meaning “From the Mao Zedong Era to the Metropolitan Opera”. I have my journey all the way from the Mao Zedong Era in China to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Now I often think about where I should go from the Met. I know I can still sing on the stage for several years, but I hope I can do something for the young singers. In my opinion, a really powerful country should also have cultural primacy. What I can do is education or communication work, helping more Chinese become interested in music and art. Asa singer living and working abroad for many years, I know more about inter-cultural communication, so I believeI can do something. The “Project for Young International Singers to Sing Chinese Songs” provides us a good opportunity to display and exchange cultures through the fine arts. This is a new thing, which has never been done either in China or in any other Western countries. Since Hanban has great determination to initiate such a project, we will definitely make every effort todo it well together.

More about chinese music in ConfuciusMag:

Confucius Institute Magazine 11

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 11. Volume VI. November 2010.


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