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8.557442 - TIAN, Hao Jiang: Operatic Arias for Bass
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Operatic Arias sung by Hao Jiang Tian


The Beijing-born bass Hao Jiang Tian has long made a habit of challenging expectations. First there is his distinctive operatic career, which he has carved not merely in orientalist backdrops like Puccini's Turandot but in the squarely Eurocentric landscapes of Verdi and Rossini. Then there's his upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, which he neither hides nor downplays but partly credits for shaping his subsequent path.

'Growing up, I hated music', he admits, explaining that European repertoire was inextricable from the piano lessons he endured at the behest of his conductor father and composer mother, both musicians with the People's Liberation Army. The sound on the street was propaganda, not art, and when all western music became banned, the twelve-year-old Tian happily joined in the national efforts by destroying his parents' prized record collection.

When the family was later forced to move from Beijing for political 're-education', the boy discovered a recording that had escaped his earlier wrath. It was Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the last piece his father had conducted in public. 'He was silent for a minute', Tian recalls. 'Then he said, "Let's play" — very softly, of course, because it was dangerous. He began to tell me for the first time what the music was all about, and little by little I saw this severe man shine with a natural beauty in his eyes. I thought, any music that could change my father like this must be very powerful'.

For the next decade, however, the young convert's education in western culture was sporadic at best. Although he subsequently learned to improvise on the piano (a skill that would earn him money at a Denver piano bar after moving to the United States to study in the mid-1980s), his clandestine study of western culture was from stolen, forbidden books. Assigned to a factory manufacturing heavy machinery, Tian held hushed, if passionate, discussions with like-minded co-workers. 'I remember I nearly killed a man', he says with an embarrassed smile. 'I thought the story of La Traviata was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read, and he called Violetta a whore'.

After the Cultural Revolution, Tian's climb onto the operatic stage began with two fortuitous steps: first, his acceptance into the re-inaugural class of Beijing's newly reopened Central Conservatory, and second, his studies with the Italian baritone Gino Bechi, the first western opera star invited to teach in China. Tian, who had never seen a western opera, auditioned with a Schubert Lied, much to Bechi's chagrin. 'He said I had a nice voice, but he could only help me if I wanted to sing opera. I had no idea what that meant, but I said, "Yes, Maestro, I want to be an opera singer"'.

Now a veteran of the world's most prominent opera stages, Tian has established a particularly close relationship with New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he has appeared every season since 1991. From his Met début as Billy Jackrabbit in La fanciulla del West ('I guess they thought I looked like an Indian', he laughs), Tian has worked his way through the company into such major rôles as Oroveso in Norma, Walter in Luisa Miller and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Virtually from the start of his career, however, Tian has been cast in major rôles in European companies.

'There are many fine singers in China, but because it is not our culture, singing western opera is probably the most difficult job we could undertake', he says. It is a particular testament to Tian's success that, of the nearly fifty rôles in his repertoire, he has often been the first Chinese performer ever to embody a particular character. 'I have chosen the arias for this recording because they are very meaningful to me personally and professionally', he says. 'They are my life and blood'.

Nabucco: Tu sul labbro dei veggenti
Singing this aria, where Zaccaria prays for the ability to convert the Assyrians, Tian envisions not Verdi's palatial setting but the backstage of the Met ('for young singers, a luxurious setting of another kind', he says), where he initially learned the rôle.

Les vêpres siciliennes: Et toi, Palerme
Here Tian sings Procida's patriotic Act III aria in French, paying homage to its première at the Paris Opéra as well as the composer's original melodic and dramatic conceptions. The rôle became Tian's début at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw.

Jérusalem: Grace mon Dieu!
An earlier Paris Opera première, Jérusalem never managed to channel its initial success into momentum abroad – even in Italy, where it remains one of Verdi's least-heard works. It did, however, serve as Tian's Italian début at Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice, where the newspaper Il Secolo XIX cited the singer's 'rare musical intelligence' and 'vocal timbre of enthralling solidity'.

Macbeth: Come dal ciel precipita
In opera, basses rarely get the girl, but in Verdi they do generally get fully fleshed out supporting rôles, such as Banquo, which Tian has performed in locations as far flung as Hong Kong and Malta. This aria from Act II, where Banquo cautions his son, skilfully weaves a suspenseful atmosphere that mirrors the character's own secrets.

Simon Boccanegra: Il lacerato spirito
Tian first learned this aria, in which the patrician Fiesco grieves over the death of his daughter, with Carlo Bergonzi in Verdi's hometown of Busseto after winning the 1988 Bel Canto Foundation Voice Competition. This auspicious immersion in the composer's world presaged Tian's own musical future. 'We had lessons in Verdi's study, with Verdi's own piano in the room', he recalls. 'How could I not feel the composer watching over my shoulder?'

Don Carlos: Ella giammai m'amo
This moment from Act IV, when Filippo realizes his young bride's heart lies elsewhere, was the first aria that Tian learned for Gino Bechi at the Central Conservatory. 'He warned me it was extremely difficult, but he hoped that someday I would sing this rôle'. Nearly twenty years later, in Genoa, Tian became the first Asian singer to perform the rôle in Italy.

Eugene Onegin: Lyubvi vse vozrasty pokorny
Tian's affinity for Prince Gremin traces back to Pushkin, whose original poetic masterpiece was a prized, if prohibited, possession during the Cultural Revolution. In preparing the rôle some thirty years later, Tian faced a rush of memories. 'The descriptive power was marvellous', he exclaims. 'At that time when we saw only red and green – I mean the colour of revolution and army uniforms – Onegin opened an entirely new world of colour'.

Il barbiere di Sivigla: La calunnia
It is one thing to summon vocal power; it is quite another to master comic lightness. 'Onstage I am always old and sad, or either killing someone or being killed', says Tian. 'It's nice to sing a comic rôle for a change'. Performing Don Basilio, a rôle requiring both verbal and musical deftness, was particularly gratifying for him in his début at Florence's Teatro Comunale.

La Sonnambula: Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni
Explaining its rarity on recordings, Tian cites this aria as one of the most difficult in the repertory. Its inclusion here, however, is hardly mere bravado, having studied the piece with both Carlo Bergonzi and Gino Bechi, Tian includes it in their honour.

Faust: Vous qui faites l'endormie
Gounod's Méphistophélès, a devilish gift to bass singers everywhere, has become predictably generous to Tian, with numerous appearances including his Latin American début in the rôle at Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón. 'The character is extremely compelling', he says. 'Not being human, he stands apart and sees the world very clearly. Playing Méphistophélès makes me feel I know human beings a little better'.

Le Cid: Il a fait noblement ce que l'honneur conseille
Of Tian's career thus far, a particular highlight has been a nationally televised production of this Massenet rarity with the Washington National Opera, featuring the lang=PT-BR company's general director, Placido Domingo. 'I play Domingo's father, but in real life it has been just the opposite', says Tian, whose Met début featured the legendary tenor. 'In all the productions we have sung together, he has been a most supportive colleague and mentor'.

La Gioconda: Ombre di mia prosapia
With few live productions of Ponchielli's opera today, this aria's rarity on recording comes as no surprise, but Tian, largely inspired by Domingo's reputation for championing neglected works, has cast his eye on the rôle of Alvise. 'When people ask me what rôles I'd like to play', he says, 'I tell them I wish to bring this to the stage'.

Ken Smith

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