Singer uses opera to build China-US bridges

Image caption Hao Jiang Tian (right) hopes Western singers can learn more about life in China

When Hao Jiang Tian was a teenager, growing up in a China wrecked by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, his prospects were not bright.

His parents had been sent away for re-education and he was living alone. At 15, he was forced to leave school and work in a factory making electric boilers.

But a chance encounter changed his life, beginning a chain of events that turned him into one of the world's top opera singers.

Now living in the US, the 57-year-old is back in China with a group of young performers to teach them how to sing Chinese opera.

It is his attempt to bridge the gap between two very different countries that will largely shape the world this century.

Learning Chinese

Tian, as he likes to be known, got the idea for the project when he first went to the West and saw how little people knew about his home country.

He still thinks this is the case today.

"Look at him, I bet he's seen 20 or so Hollywood movies," he said, pointing randomly to a young man during an interview with the BBC.

"But how many Chinese films have people in the West seen?" he added.

Tian has brought 20 singers for the "I Sing Beijing" project, most of them from the United States.

Image caption Tian has moved from Chinese factory worker to international opera star

They have spent a month in the Chinese capital, learning how to speak Mandarin for their singing roles.

They took part in a special performance in Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, just off Tiananmen Square, on Thursday.

It featured a series of scenes mostly taken from modern Chinese operas.

But just as important as the show, Tian wants the singers, all promising young opera performers, to learn something about China.

"Positive, negative, good or bad - I just want to them to take whatever they get from this trip back home to share with their friends and family," he said.

They singers said they would now see China in a different light.

"The little bit about China I did know was wrong. The word that comes to mind is 'growth'," said Brian Wahlstrom, a baritone from San Diego.

Life-changing moment

Tian was born into a musical family - his mother was a composer and his father a conductor - but he was reluctant to follow in their footsteps.

His parents forced him to abandon his dream of becoming a painter and learn the piano instead.

When his piano teacher was arrested as a counter revolutionary at the start of the political upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution, he screamed with joy.

Later in life, he sought out his old teacher and apologised.

Like many in China, his life was turned upside down by the Cultural Revolution. That is when his parents were sent away and he had to work in a factory.

"I was a wild teenager," he told another interviewer. He drank, smoked and picked fights.

As the Cultural Revolution was ending, in the mid-1970s, Tian won a place to study at Beijing's prestigious Central Conservatory of Music.

He was encouraged to apply by a man who overheard Tian shouting outside a friend's home.

"That couple of minutes saved my life," he once said.

Image caption Tian was forced to learn the piano - even though he disliked it

Tian finally made his way to New York in 1983, where he immediately spent some of the little money he had on a ticket to see Luciano Pavarotti sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Ten years to the day after that, he sang on stage with Pavarotti at the same venue.

Despite the fact he is now a US citizen, Tian still maintains strong links with China.

Every time the internationally-acclaimed singer comes back he searches out an old friend or former neighbourhood to track the immense changes taking place in the country of his birth.

On this trip he visited his old middle school, where he met his ex-physical education teacher.

Only the school's garden remains the same as when Tian was there, although even here there has been change: some of the trees have been moved around.

"When I left China I could imagine that everyone would have a watch or a colour TV, but not a car," he said, before leaving to deal with the preparations for the show.

That performance coincided with an official visit to China by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who was too busy to attend the opera.

Ahead of the trip, the vice-president's national security advisor, Tony Blinken, said the visit's aim was to deepen the relationship between two countries that are interdependent, but also very different.

"Simply put, we're investing in the future of the US-China relationship," said Mr Blinken.

In some ways - although he is using music rather than diplomacy - that is exactly what Hao Jiang Tian is trying to achieve.

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