28 Jul 2008

Along the Roaring River

Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian was 30, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Denver 1983.

That was late in life to set out on the career that has nonetheless taken him from Mao to the Met — and beyond, but that’s only one feature that makes Along the Roaring River, the singer’s account of his life, a fascinating book.

During his first American decade Tian sang a variety of supporting roles with Denver’s Opera Colorado. In 1988 he attracted a larger audience in an Aspen Wild-West staging of Verdi’s Falstaff that — prophetically — featured an almost all-Asian cast. He made his Met debut opposite Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi’s Lombardi 1993.

He was — among his many “firsts” — the first Chinese to sing Verdi in Italy and to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio in Germany. (The problems that he encountered at the hands of make-up crews account for lighter moments in his story.) It has also been a career that took took Tian home to China and then made him a major figure in introducing new Chinese opera to this country. In 2006 he sang the premiere of Tan Dun’s First Emperor at the Met and two years later he was on stage in Central City as the Poet Li Bai in Guo Wenjing‘s account of the eighth-century author.

In Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met, Tian, born in Beijing in 1954, tells of more than his life in opera, and that makes the book, written with the able aid of Lois B. Morris, a document of its time. Tian labels his Chinese roots “revolutionary military,” for his parents had been underground Communists back in the days when Chiang Kai-shek led the Chinese against the Japanese invasion that was a major chapter of World War Two. But his early life of privilege — better food, better clothing, better housing — did not last. With Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 60’s, even this background was no insurance against suspicion. His parents were exiled from Beijing, and Tian went to work in the city’s boiler works, today a Chinese-American joint venture. Nonetheless he learned guitar and accordion and slowly built a second career in music while banging out boilers. Yet he had loathed early piano lessons and recalls the pleasure that he took in smashing the family’s records of Western music that were anathema to the ears of the “new” China. Thus the book is also a sorrowful report on a tragic chapter of history that witnessed, for example, the death of millions of Chinese through the mismanagement of Mao and his lieutenants.

These horrors are offset by the love story that is a further dimension of this report: Tian’s happy — and fortuitous — marriage to London-born Martha Liao, who left a major career in genetics to serve as producer, manager, gourmet cook and all around genius in helping the singer achieve the fame that he now enjoys. High on the list of Liao’s successes is the founding of Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, the organization that made Poet Li Bai possible.

In the most poignant moment in the book Tian recalls a day when Met rehearsals for Emperor were going badly. Everyone was tired and tensions were running high. At the piano Tian began playing songs from the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese colleagues from that era joined in, and the defeatist mood was broken. “Strange to say, for some of us there was magic under Chairman Mao,” Tian writes. “The creative fire was lit and fed in an environment that was inhospitable to anything but the party line. We had nothing. There was nothing to have. What was there was ours, a simple song in the mountains, a couple of stuffed dumplings, a glass of beer, a line of poetry, a back and forth about literature…. “How bizarre that I was rediscovering it all again among my Chinese Cultural Revolution peers in this bastion of high Western culture in twenty-first century America.”

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross provides a significant supplement to Tian’s book in his article “Symphony of Millions,” an account of musical life in China today, in the July 7 issue of that magazine. He tells of visiting Tian and Martha at their Beijing home and offers insights into Poet LiBai with — alas — no mention of the role of the Central City Opera in staging the work.

On September 13 Hao Jiang Tian sings Chang the Coffin Maker in the world premiere of Stewart Wallace’s Bonesetter’s Daughter at the San Francisco Opera. Amy Tan has written the libretto after her novel of the same title.

Wes Blomster