iSING! – International Young Artists Festival in Suzhou, China



It all started with a dream, or perhaps it was just frustration.

‘People outside of China knew so little about my country and its history, let alone its rich musical tradition’, says musician Tian Haojiang.

Looking to change this dynamic, the bass singer founded I SING Beijing in 2011 – renamed iSING! International Young Artists Festival in 2014 when it moved to Suzhou, East China’s Jiangsu Province – together with his wife, Martha Liao, who serves as its general manager. Their goal was to create a training program for aspiring young opera singers that would not only realize Tian’s dream but also nurture a new breed of artists who would be equally at ease performing modern Chinese operas as they would standard operatic repertoire.

Tools to build a career

Preparing young singers for careers in the evolving world of opera is complicated by the skills that the individual singers need to acquire. Katherine Chu, director of music administration at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and a member of iSING!’s coaching staff, 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. She points to soprano Yu Guanqun as an example. ‘The depth, sophistication and intensity in the style of coaching was new to her and something that she had never even contemplated’, she says.

In 2011, Yu had been in Italy for 10 years with some success but earning little money. She thought of giving up singing and returning home but instead accepted iSING!’s invitation to participate in the new program. There she learned something crucial that led to her successful 2013 Metropolitan Opera debut as Leonora in Il trovatore.

‘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. I prepared my debut role at the Met with the iSING! coaches and directors. It was a huge success and I started my career just like that’, Yu explains.

Hailed by Opera News as one of ‘opera’s exciting new voices’, Chinese baritone Wang Yunpeng participated in the festival when he 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. He describes iSING! as a two-way cultural and musical exchange – Chinese singers learn from observing and working with more experienced singers from other parts of the world while they provide insights into Chinese music and culture in return. As important as working with world-class coaches and directors was for him, it was the encouragement ‘to achieve something bigger than we thought possible’ that inspired Wang and so many others.

Willing to learn

Knowing little about the program and never having been to China, Michael Sylvester, who has appeared in leading tenor roles over the course of his 25-year career, joined iSING!’s faculty in 2014 to give voice lessons. He was unprepared for what awaited him: ‘The Chinese singers were magnificent! They were like sponges soaking up everything I said’.

‘I was so honored when Tian and Martha asked me to teach at iSING!’ exclaims Marianne Cornetti, one of today’s leading Verdi mezzo-sopranos. In 2001, at Tian’s invitation, she appeared with him in the first Shanghai production of Don Carlo. As with Sylvester, the young Chinese singers’ commitment astonished her. ‘They never tired. They never got discouraged. They couldn’t get enough of what the other teachers and I were saying’.

The high level of talent and grit of the non-Chinese singers also impressed her. As Chu notes, ‘They are out of their comfort zone in every sense. Helping them cope with a new culture and sharing in their progress as they study Mandarin [Putonghua, Standard Chinese] and learn how to sing in it is immensely rewarding’.

Soprano Juliet Petrus was one of them. ‘My summers in Beijing with iSING! were magical and life altering. Without the exposure to Chinese music and language and the mentoring I received from iSING!, I would not find myself where I am professionally in the USA and China’.

Her exposure to Putonghua ignited a passion for all things Chinese. She has returned to study the language as well as to perform and teach in China. The program also laid the groundwork for her recording A Great Distance: A Collection of Chinese and American Art Song with pianist Lydia Qui. She gives all the credit to iSING!: ‘I would have never been set on this path without the knowledge I gained there’.

Singers need audiences and iSING! provides ample performance opportunities. In China, there have been concerts in more than 20 cities. Additionally, since its sold-out New York debut at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in 2013, iSING! has presented concerts across North America and in Europe, where the audience reception has been enthusiastic.

What is the secret of this ‘wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience’ as iSING! has often been described? Cornetti sums it up best: ‘It is so different than other programs for one reason, Tian and Martha’s hands-on approach. They expect a lot from the singers, but on the other hand they are so warm and nurturing’.

The 2017 iSING! International Young Artists Festival will run until August 27.

Rick Perdian

Previously published in a slightly different form by Global Times.

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