Q & A: Bass Hao Jiang Tian on iSING! Suzhou International Young Artists Festival’s ‘Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems’By David Salazar
Back in 1983, Hao Jiang Tian arrived in New York from Beijing with $35 in his pocket and limited communication skills in English. One of his first stops from that trip was the Metropolitan Opera where he witnessed a performance of “Ernani” with Luciano Pavarotti.
A decade later, Tian would take the stage with the famed Italian singer as part of a career that saw him sing at over 30 opera houses around the world. Since then, he has participated in the world premieres of 10 Chinese contemporary operas, written an autobiography, and had a PBS special based on the book. That’s without mention the number of major accolades he has received throughout his career.
Tian is also the co-founder of iSING! Suzhou International Young Artists Festival, “the first-ever vocal art festival with a unique vision and innovative concept of introducing Mandarin as a lyric language and Chinese vocal music as an emerging genre to the mainstream music world.” iSING Suzhou is set to present the North American premiere of “Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems” in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Jan. 6 & 7 in Philadelphia and New York.
OperaWire recently spoke with Tian about his journey as an artist and the process of bringing “Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems” to life amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
OperaWire: What inspired you to take this path in your career in the world of opera and classical music?
Hao Jiang Tian: I come from a musical family: my father was a conductor, and my mother was a composer. Even as a little child, I loved running around the stage. It was something completely different from the real world; just think of the lights, the scenery, the smell, and the props. But when the show started, I’d fall asleep. Then I came to the United States, I started appearing on stage and fell in love with that experience again. I realized that my life is tightly connected with the stage, even today.
Just like any other young singer, I had many obstacles when I embarked on my career. So many times I wanted to give it all up and do something else. In the end, my wife Martha was adamant in convincing me I had to stick with it. She said, “You don’t have any other talent. Singing is the only way out for you.” I didn’t have a choice.
OW: Who were your mentors?
HJT: Also, when I was growing up and studying music, there were so many people who helped me selflessly. When I was a student at Denver University, Opera Colorado’s renowned coach Louise Sherman worked with me—for free—for five years. She never charged this young, struggling opera singer a single cent! I learned a lot of Italian, French, and German repertoire, which helped me in my career tremendously. Perhaps it was experiences like these that deeply influenced me and inspired me to found the iSING! Suzhou International Young Artists Festival.
OW: Let’s talk about iSING! Suzhou. Since its founding in 2011, how has the organization developed and evolved? What are some of the greatest challenges you have had to overcome to lead the organization to this point?
HJT: As you can imagine, organizing a festival like this has not been easy in the past decade or so. We had to face many challenges. After the first few years, we were able to secure our home base in Suzhou, which really helped ground the festival on a practical level. Suzhou is an ancient city that traces a continuous cultural history back 2500 years. Since the early dynasties, this city nurtured the literati, and voluminous texts praise the beauty of its gardens and rivers.
Thanks to financial support from the Suzhou government, we are relieved of some of our fundraising efforts, though we still have to work hard to secure sponsorship. This program is totally free for participating singers. Planning for a month-long iSING! Suzhou festival takes at least six months. We also relied on a lot of volunteers, which has become a challenge. Because of the sheer scale of resources needed to make this happen, I always wonder how much longer we can do this every year. Of course, we’ve all shared some tremendous moments. Every time we finish a concert in Suzhou, or Beijing, or Shanghai or Nanjing—not to mention Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center—we’re all motivated and energized to start the next year. This was especially the case in November 2020, when we celebrated the world premiere of the Tang Poems concert in Suzhou when no opera or concerts were going on anywhere in the rest of the world. None of us will forget those moments in Suzhou, considering people had traveled from the U.S., Russia, Italy, Ukraine, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Serbia. What the world needs today are more music and beautiful voices, not misunderstandings, belligerence, pandemics or war.
OW: Shifting to “Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems,” the performances set for Jan. 6 and 7, they are the culmination of a process dating back to 2020. How did the pandemic affect the project?
HJT: You might remember what New York City was like in March 2020. With the onset of the COVID pandemic, we were all stricken by terror. Late one night, my wife Martha Liao and I decided that the safest thing to do was to leave the city. So we booked our flights, departing from Manhattan to Hong Kong. On the way to the airport, we drove past Lincoln Center, which was completely shuttered. On the streets, there were no people, no lights. Everything was dark. We felt really sad.
Over the next seven months, we organized the 2020 iSING! Composition Competition communicating with people through the internet, mostly through Zoom. We received an enthusiastic response from all of the participants. We felt courage in moving forward. The pandemic could not defeat us.
OW: How did you select the compositions? What were you looking for?
HJT: For the first two months, a group of wonderful Chinese scholars delved into Tang Dynasty poetry, choosing the best poems that could be set to music. After we announced the competition, we received entries from 18 countries, eventually selecting 23 young composers for the final round. In the end, the competition yielded 10 winners and four honorable mentions. The winning composers hail from China, the United States, Spain, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. The actual “competition” phase lasted five months, which resulted in 16 award-winning compositions that we included in the performance. To me, the greatest winner throughout the pandemic is the amazing oeuvre of Tang poetry.
OW: The compositions are based on Ancient Tang Poems. How did you settle on the theme?
HJT: The Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) was one of the most alluring dynasties in ancient China. The cultural treasure trove of that period includes tens of thousands of poems, of which quite a few hundred still survive today. Throughout these 1300 years, people have continued to appreciate the literary and artistic value of these works. The Tang Dynasty was also renowned for trade with the rest of the world. It was the time when the ancient Silk Road thrived, which resulted in a great cultural flowering not only in China but throughout Asia and Europe.
OW: What was your personal connection to these poems? What are their overarching themes?
HJT: In my childhood, I’d learned to recite Tang poems (as with all Chinese children, even today). Some of them have even become my life’s mottos, such as “To see a thousand miles in the distance, up another flight one goes” (Wang Zhihuan, “Up on the Crane Tower”) and “Wild fires cannot burn the prairie off, Spring winds breathe life back to all” (Bai Juyi, “Farewell on the Prairie”). Both of these poems became particularly meaningful during the pandemic, and we have included them in our program. When I first suggested this to my iSING! colleagues, they all agreed immediately and threw themselves into making this entire project—from announcing the competition and setting up committees to inviting the international jury—a reality.
OW: Can you speak about your partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra and why it is so important that the organization is involved in this project?
HJT: I was a teenager half a century ago when the Philadelphia Orchestra made its first tour of China in 1973. I remember vividly listening to the concert on the radio and reading in the daily news bulletins about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s every move in the country. It was very big news at that time, and the Chinese population was so eager to learn more about this orchestra. Three decades later, I was fortunate to have been engaged by the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila.” When I stood on the stage and heard the first notes being played by the musicians around me, I was so moved. Now, it is such an honor to be working as a partner with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the North American premiere of “Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems,” representing both half a century of relations between the United States and China as well as referencing a literary culture that dates back more than a millennium.
OW: What do you hope audiences take from these concerts?
HJT: First of all, we will be projecting bilingual surtitles throughout the concert to help the audience fully grasp what’s being sung at every moment. (Our English surtitles are also specially vetted by the best translators active today.) Both the texts and the musical settings unfold with quite subtle shading, so we want to give everyone the best chance to appreciate these poems, to have the poetry touch their hearts. From the musical standpoint, we also want to encourage contemporary listeners to contemplate how modern music can relate and fuse with the ancient world. This lyrical approach can be quite inviting, I think, to bring people together across different cultures and different eras.
OW: Finally, in your opinion, what are the keys to growth and development for the opera industry as it moves into the future?
HJT: In my performing career, I’ve been very lucky to have worked with many internationally renowned conductors and singers. I’ve witnessed how the operatic world has transformed itself in the past three decades, especially in my 20 years of engagements at the Metropolitan Opera. I’ve also personally played a part in the rise of contemporary operas, both in Asia and the West. Because of my exposure to the international platform that is opera, I always ponder its future. I wanted to put my ideas into action. Only by trying will you know whether you’re right or wrong.
iSING! Suzhou is a way to explore our path, step by step. For opera to have a future, we must innovate. We really need to create a larger platform for young operatic artists to learn both the classics and newer works, searching for those new operas that can become future classics. Everything new is built upon the foundations of what is traditional. With “Echoes of Ancient Tang Poems,” combining our forces with the Philadelphia Orchestra, we hope to learn something new from an ancient literary tradition to rejuvenate our own cultures and make them stronger.