2011's "I Sing Beijing Gala" concert at the NCPA. Photo: Courtesy of Tian Haojiang
On August 13, inside a rehearsal room at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing, Jacquelyn Stucker, a student at Brooklyn College in New York, is practicing her role in the traditional Chinese opera, The White-Haired Girl.
Coached by both a Chinese and foreign director, Stucker sings each line in Chinese at least five times to reach their standard.
"I got the music early July and started practicing," said Stucker. "It's challenging but interesting."
Stucker came to China a month ago for the 2012 "I Sing Beijing Gala Concert," to be held on August 28 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), along with 20 other foreign students from six countries. Those students have professional music backgrounds but limited Putonghua skills.
As the second session, the concert this year will feature foreign students performing classic Chinese operas in Chinese, including The White-Haired Girl, Jiang Jie and Chinese Orphan at the NCPA late this month.
Though it's common to see Chinese singers singing Western opera on stage, it's rare to hear foreigners singing traditional Chinese operas.
"The program for 'I Sing Beijing' enables foreigners to have more access to traditional Chinese opera," said Tian Haojiang, the acclaimed opera bass and chief art director of the program.
Staging the program
Performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for 19 years and staging over 1,400 performances of Western operas, Tian said he has witnessed many cases of Chinese people learning Western languages, art and culture. Foreigners however, pursue only certain aspects of Chinese culture.
"Their understanding of China is still limited to Chinese food, Bruce Lee and Taichi. As an opera singer, I feel obligated to enlighten people about Chinese opera," Tian told the Global Times.
Initiated last year by Hanban, or the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, the program gets its financial support from channels like the government, enterprises and personal donations, said Tian.
"It took us four months to select 21 actors from hundreds of candidates; there are six more cast members than last year," he said.
"It was an intense competition," Stucker said. "When I auditioned, I didn't think I would get in. There were students from Manhattan School of Music, and other well-respected schools. They not only had auditions in America, but also in Italy and other places. I just tried my best."
With the music materials prepared for them, Stucker and her classmates attended classes from 10am to 6pm everyday.
"Emotions are not strong enough, you have to find the right intensity," American coach Kristine MacIntyre said in a class, referring to where Stucker's performance goes wrong.
"When I saw this program, [exchanging] language with native speakers, I wanted to study Chinese. And I've been dying to visit China," said Stucker, explaining why she decided to attend this program.
"Compared to my experience in the US, the support for classical art here is tremendous," she said.
"I think this is where art is flourishing now, rather than places like the US. In the news, we hear bad things like concert halls going bankrupt or other music houses closing."
Before she came here, Stucker said she watched the The White-Haired Girl movie and listened to the ballet to become familiar with the story. Though she studied Chinese in college for a year, singing in Putonghua is much harder.
"It's different from singing Western opera, and making sense of what you are singing is the most important," she said,
"I need to figure out which words are important and bring them out…I started to get this wild and desperate energy she (the leading female character in the The White-Haired Girl) has, it wasn't until then that I understood the importance of the words."
It can be difficult for someone from another culture to understand an old Chinese story.
"As a non-native speaker, there are connotations and ideas that I'm not aware of. Learning about the linguistic construction of the text of my aria immensely helps me get into these emotions," Stucker told the Global Times.
After their performance late this month at the NCPA, the group will tour cities including Paris, and perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, February of next year.
"Though it's difficult, it's really interesting. I'm excited to go to those places to perform," said Stucker.