Column #16: THE ENTHUSIAST
The Enthusiast talks with opera singer and memoirist Hao Jiang Tian.
“Everybody has stories, deep down — it’s whether you want to tell them or not.”
- Hao Jiang Tian
The first thing you notice talking to Hao Jiang Tian (he prefers to be called Tian, pronounced like “T.N.”) is his voice. How could you not? The world-traveling singer is one of the preeminent basses in opera, and his speaking voice begins in startling depths. There’s a warmth there as well, a natural friendliness that one can detect looking at the half-smiling face layered into the background of the cover photo collage for his memoir Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met.
Roaring River is one of several translations of Tian’s name, as well as a metaphor for a life guided by what he sees as the hand of fate. To call Tian’s life story extraordinary seems kind of an understatement. This is a man who grew up in the Cultural Revolution, breaking into a library with friends to read banned books and trying to navigate the ever-changing codes of conduct at home, work, and school. He then went on to the University of Denver at the age of 30 to become an opera singer, barely able to speak English and unaccustomed to bathing every day. Tian rose to prominence on the world opera stage, eventually producing and starring in the original Chinese-language opera Poet Li Bai. Along the Roaring River is the story of a young man discovering himself in art and his struggle to bring that discovery to the world.
Tian and I conducted the following interview on the phone while he was making a brief stop in Denver on his way to San Francisco, prior to the Beijing Olympics.
Isaac Butler: How did the memoir come about? What made you decide “Okay, now’s the time to tell the life story”? What was it like revisiting all of those memories?
Hao Jiang Tian: Sometimes in your life, at a certain moment, you just want to do something. I started to think about writing a book 15 years ago, probably because I’m an opera singer, and I think my experience is just like an opera. I think that’s the reason. I am so happy that reviewers find my story so riveting. Three years ago, my wife and I met this couple from New York in a Shanghai hotel lobby, and both of them are writers. They were interested in my stories and we became very close friends, and then we started working together. So [Lois B. Morris] became my co-author. I believe in fate because whatever happens in your life and the turning points in your life, and who you met and who is important in your life, I think it’s all because of fate. I was brought up in the Cultural Revolution and I was home alone when I was a teenager, and my family suffered a lot, but look at it today! I’m here! I’m American on the opera stage making lots of friends, and that’s why I wanted to write this book. One day, also, [I hope] to make it into a movie.
IB: You occupy a rather peculiar, even groundbreaking position as a Chinese-born Western opera star. Do you feel certain unique responsibilities because of that role?
HJT: I don’t know if I’m a star, but I certainly feel that I’m one of the luckiest ones. I’ve performed at the MET and at so many great houses in Europe and America. I don’t know whether or not I have a responsibility, but it’s a time to give back as much as possible. To whom? To where? I think not just for Chinese young singers, but I have been living here a long time and it’s my home now. Every single time I had a turning point in my life, I worked hard. But I got so much help from so many people — some of them complete strangers. As a person, as an artist, you have to give. Give from your life. Give from your experience. And that’s what I really feel now. The thing is, as artists, you can definitely be selfish and hold what you’ve got, but I don’t think what you’ve got belongs to you. It belongs to others. I hope I can connect my feelings with young people, especially. What I went through as a teenager… I think the book isn’t just for opera lovers, it’s for people interested in human stories. I don’t have children, but I feel I always relate so well to young people. I hope this book really can reach a wider circle of young people.
IB: What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in returning to China since you emigrated to the United States?
HJT: During the Cultural Revolution, America was our enemy. Anything from the west — music, books, religion, art works — everything was forbidden. Nobody could play Western music or see Western movies or books. Everything! So we tried to understand the West through the books that we could steal or borrow. So what I started to understand the West through [was] the classic novels translated into Chinese in the 1950s. So, of course, the books opened many windows for the West since the early 20th century. Young people just tried to push that window open as wide as possible to understand the world. Today, because China is pretty wide open to the West, I hope young people [do] not just pay attention to McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Nike Shoes and Old Navy Jeans. I hope they spend time to learn more about the history and the literature, and the arts and the modern thinking, and the new philosophy and the West. Young people are paying a lot more attention to the material things.
IB: Why is that?
HJT: Because when you talk to young people about the outside world, they don’t know that much about it besides the lifestyle of the Westerners — the clothes, the makeup, the food… Also, I do feel that young people read less than when we were teenagers. And, of course, computers. [Laughs] So actually, I do think today this is a reality in China. In my time, you couldn’t find a record of Western music. Now you can download it onto your computer! The thing is, in our time, when we got anything — one book, one record — we would get together and discuss it to find out the meanings, get as deep as possible with it. We would listen to it 20, 30 times until we remembered it for our whole lives. Today it’s so rich, so easy to get something, so you can’t go as deep.
IB: Are you involved in the ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics?
HJT: I’m invited to the opening of the Olympics by the Government, so Martha and I are going. I was offered a concert performance during the two weeks, but the problem is that I’m on my way to San Francisco to be in a new opera, The Bonesetter’s Daughter [based on the novel by Amy Tan], and rehearsals start on August 5th and the opening is on the 8th. So I didn’t think I’d be able to accept the invitation because of rehearsals. So I got an invitation, thought I wouldn’t be able to go, but then I was released by San Francisco Opera until the 9th, so now I can go. I will be there for three days.
IB: How does it feel, as an international artist, to have so much focus on China?
HJT: I think the Olympics are a great thing for China. I think they’re great for the world. Of course, in Atlanta there was trouble, in Moscow too. China has its own problems too, but I think the Olympics are a great thing to get people together to do great things. Why I say it’s good for China is because of my experience in the past. In the past, China was so closed — the doors and the windows have been closed for many, many years. And I think nobody in the world would like to see China go back to that kind of situation and, as a Chinese, of course, we don’t want it to go back. It’s a great thing for China going forward and being a positive energy for the whole world. That’s what I feel. I just look at the change from 40 years ago! So much change so fast — China is in a great period for this. The Olympics will provide positive energy for China during this time of change.
IB: What do you think are the core issues facing opera today, as it moves into the future? What about the industry would you like to see addressed over the coming years?
HJT: I think the opera world is changing. It goes back 50 years ago. Opera is always people singing but because of the high tech, because of the younger audience, opera is really changing. For example, the director… direction has become more important in operas than before. Before, opera stars used to just stand there and sing with their great voices. Today, direction is really having an important part in operas –more and more important. The designs, the costumes, so you see movie directors, Broadway directors, all working with opera houses all over the world. This is exciting, but some people are worrying about it. They worry about the tradition of opera being changed. In Europe, in Germany, you see all these new directions, avant garde things. Young directors who put their wild imaginations into the directions — violence, blood, sexual actions, and nudity in operas! So I think the question is: If you want to bring your five-year-old child, do you want their first experience to be a traditional La Traviata or an experimental La Traviata? And another question is: Will traditional direction stay or go away in the next 20 years? As an opera singer, I love new works and new directions, new feelings and new concepts, but of course opera is also a classic art form.
IB: Are there any further plans for Poet Li Bai?
HJT: We’re working on bringing it to Hong Kong and New York. We are very proud of Poet Li Bai. The world premiere was in Colorado less than a year ago, and we brought it to Beijing and Shanghai. It made its debut in Italy a month ago. Less than one year, and this opera was in three different continents!
IB: If you could appear in a vision to the younger self you portray in the book, any advice you’d want to give him?
HJT: I would tell myself to not give up. The important thing is not to give up and to appreciate, be grateful. One important thing is you have to know what the meaning of love is. Today I feel sometimes people… because life is so busy, sometimes you’d lose the feelings of love. Love is so important to human beings. Sometimes you will miss it without realizing it. Love will be an important driving power in your life. An example of this is our love of nature. If we forget, if we don’t pay attention to our love for nature, it could be a disaster. Everyone is talking about environmental problems, and I think this is related to our relationship with nature, our lack of love with nature. Last year, in Colorado, we did the world premiere of Li Bai in Colorado, in Central City, in the mountains, and I wanted to relax. I loved to fish 25 years ago in the mountain lakes, so I grabbed my fishing rod and bought by fishing license and drove to the mountain lake in Dillon. I was so shocked, so sad that day! Half of the pine trees on the mountains were dead. Mile after mile, you see the pines, but the green pines were turning yellow in July — at least 50% of the pines on the mountain. That was sad. I was sitting there fishing and looking around the pines and, of course, the temperature had changed so the pines were dying because the pine beetles weren’t dying in the winter. That’s sad.
Along the Roaring River is in stores now. Isaac Butler’s blog can be found here.
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