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Interview with Opera Singer Tian Hao Jiang

Aired June 15, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): Back stage at the National Theater in Beijing, one of opera's finest bass-baritones prepares himself for a performance of his one-man show.

TIAN HAO JIANG, OPERA SINGER: I'm a crazy guy. Especially before I step on stage. Yes, I can go crazy in the dressing room.

COREN (voiceover): But this is certainly not a first for Tian Hao Jiang. He's thrilled audiences around the world with the power of his voice thousands of times. From his first role in Puccini's opera, "Girl from the Golden West", to playing opposite operatic superstar, Placido Domingo, in "The Force of Destiny".

However, his path to stardom was an unlikely one. Born into a musical family in Beijing during Mao Zedong's Communist rule, at just 15, he was forced to work in a factory and embrace revolutionary life.

JIANG: Back at the factory, I would perform revolutionary songs, like a model worker. Even today, these popular revolutionary songs instant would take our generation back to our youth - to those beaters (ph) with ears.

COREN (voiceover): But, as the 70s rolled around and Mao's grip loosened, Tian fought to study music in Beijing and then in America, where he would see his first ever opera, starring Luciano Pavarotti. 10 years later, to the day, Tian would share the limelight with the opera icons.

This week, Talk Asia's Stan Grant is in Beijing with Tian Hao Jiang as he takes us on his journey from life under Mao to the world's biggest operatic stages and back to China, where he opens up about the death of his brother and why their friendship inspired his latest show.




GRANT: I don't even know where to start with your story. It's the most extraordinary story. But one thing really jumps out at me. And that is a moment when you applauded - cheered - when your piano lessons came to an end. Especially when your piano teacher was sent away during the Cultural Revolution. Tell me about that.

JIANG: I think I was only eight, probably. And I was forced by my parents to study piano. You know, I hated it because I wanted to become a artist - you know, painter. But my parents were musicians and, of course, they wanted me to become a pianist. So, I hated it. I always practice the piano in tears.

So, the Cultural Revolution started and my piano teacher was in trouble - was sent away and -

GRANT: And you celebrated.

JIANG: -- to the countryside and I was so happy.

GRANT: That's just terrible.

JIANG: Celebrated and I run out to the coal (ph) yard, you know, jumping around. And so, that was the end of my piano lessons.

GRANT: But the end of piano lessons for a while.


GRANT: But also the start of a very, very tumultuous period for your country and for your family. Tell me about how your family experienced the Cultural Revolution.

JIANG: My parents were musicians. So, my father was a conductor, my mother was a composer. And during the Cultural Revolution period, of course they were under a lot of pressure and they were sent away to the countryside for a few years. And so, the day they were leaving, I was helping them to pack and I found a older record in a free stand old gramophone. And so I told my father. My father came and asked me to play that record. That was the only one record left at home.

That was in 1966. My father conducted that piece in 1964 in Beijing. And that was a Beethoven Symphony Number Six. The Pastoral. And that was the last Western symphony piece my father conducted. I found that record and then my father asked me to play it. That was my first music collection and the only one from my father.

GRANT: It's really incredible, when I look at your life. Because you've mentioned that one moment - that record, playing it, your father being there with you - but there are always these moments that seem to appear in your life. There was another moment, a couple of minutes that really changed your life forever. Tell me about that.

JIANG: Oh yes. That was in 1975. A long time ago. Actually, I was on my bike. I had a long, sweaty ride to another side of Beijing to look for a friend. I was working in a factory in a suburb of Beijing. Life was pretty happy. You know, happy work and -

GRANT: And you were a wild man, too.

JIANG: I was wild.

GRANT: You were getting into fights and you were in trouble, right?

JIANG: Absolutely. I was wild and -

GRANT: Smoking, drinking -

JIANG: Smoking, drinking, singing with my guitar. Find an excuse to escape from my work and have fun. You know, in the mountains. Anyway, that day was very interesting because I went to the other side of Beijing to look for my friend, and my friend was not home. And a stranger opened a window and, because I was calling my friend outside of the building, "Hey, are you home?" So -

GRANT: In that sort of voice?

JIANG: Right. And my friend was not home. A stranger opened another window on the fourth floor and asked me, "Hey, are you a singer?" And I said, "No, why?" He said, "Come up, I want to talk to you".

GRANT: He was a singer.

JIANG: He was a professional singer. And he told me, "You have a big voice, you should try. You know, you may have a singing career". Anyway, and then I found a vocal teacher - I started my vocal training. That's a turning point in my life.

GRANT: Another pivotal moment was when you beat out 500 others in an audition. And that was another moment that moved you forward in this -

JIANG: Absolutely.

GRANT: Almost like fate for you, wasn't it?

JIANG: Absolutely, because during the Cultural Revolution period, the conservatories universities only opened to the selected students. So, 1976 was the first year they opened to the public. Everybody could apply, you know. So, the first boys' class was extremely - the competition was keen, because in whole China, they only chose about, I think, 17 singers from whole China.


JIANG: I was so nervous. Because I want to make it, because I wanted to leave the factory. So, I tried very hard and I was lucky one. I made it.

GRANT: Not just luck, is it, really?

JIANG: I was the lucky one.

GRANT: But you have this gift and the gift has taken you all around the world. But, after getting in there, then the move to the United States. You tried for so long, didn't you?

JIANG: Yes. Took me about two years to get a passport. But it took me only 50 seconds to get a visa.


JIANG: I only had 35 dollars in my pocket.


JIANG: And next day, I spent eight dollars. I bought a standing pass - I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I saw the first opera in my life.

GRANT: Your first experience.

JIANG: First experience.

GRANT: What was it like for you to stand there and see that - experience that?

JIANG: Oh, when the curtain opened, Pavarotti was standing there, in front of my face.

GRANT: First opera, and it's Pavarotti. Of course.

JIANG: I saw James Levine and he conducted. The chorales, the stage setting, the lights, and the orchestra - I was totally knocked out. This was unbelievable.

GRANT: And 10 years after you saw Pavarotti -

JIANG: Right.

GRANT: You sang with Pavarotti.

JIANG: Absolutely.


JIANG: 10 years later, exactly on that day. And I found a chance to tell Pavarotti of my story in the first break. I grabbed him and said, "Maestro, I wanted to tell you my story, because 10 years ago -"

GRANT: I saw you 10 years ago.

JIANG: Yes, 10 years ago, I saw him. You know, on the stage. And I only had 35 dollars. I'm from Beijing. And I spent eight dollars to buy a standing pass. And I was very nervous - I spoke very fast. And he was very nice, because he took my hand at the end to go out the curtain, to bow.


JIANG: With me together. I was so touched.


JIANG: I got a call from Beijing, said that he was dying. "If you want to see him, you better come back immediately, because he wouldn't make it".




JIANG: Tonight, first of all, I hope I can finish.

I hope I won't forget the words.

Thank you, let's go on stage. Ok, let's go.


I think I'm ready. My voice, my mood, my brain, my body. And also my team. Here we are. Here we are. Yes.

JIANG (through onscreen translation): My brother woke up. He was so happy seeing me there. His eyes were filled with smiles. Smiles so genuine, no disguise at all. Even a little shy. It had been a long time since my brother and I were last together. Quietly. Privately. With nobody bothering us . for three hours .


GRANT: When you go to a place like the U.S. and you embark on a career like this, there's so much of your past life that you become disconnected from. What about your relationship with your brother? Because, while you were going that way, your brother was leading a very, very different life.

JIANG: Yes. My older brother actually was eight years older than me. Of course I - for many years, actually - we didn't have a very close relationship. Because, you know, I'm living the States, and he was in Beijing with a regular job and regular pay.

GRANT: You were just worlds apart.

JIANG: Right. And so, he died of liver cancer about 10 years ago. So, I got a call from Beijing. I was singing "La Boheme" at the Met. I got a call from Beijing, said that he was dying. "If you want to see him, you better come back immediately. Because he wouldn't make it". You know, my brother - I looked down him a little bit. I thought, you know - sometime I try to help him to start a little business or something, but I thought that he was hopeless. Because he was such a nice man, but a simple. Very simple.

And so, I rushed back to Beijing. Because two performances - between two performances, they were only three days apart at the Met. So I promise to go back to New York - to continue my performance of "La Boheme". So I rushed back to Beijing. I spent only three hours with him in the hospital. That three hours - I - wow. Just an unforgettable experience, because I think I found my brother again.

Through that three hours, also, I found myself again. We talk a lot about our past and then we sat a lot together. Many, many songs we brought up with. And those songs - you know, each one of them could tell a story about our experience. And the first time I talked with my brother about my operatic life in the West. And I sung, you know, arias for him. And because he never, never been to my - had never been to my opera performances and my concerts.

GRANT: So, you gave him a private performance.

JIANG: Absolutely. And so, since then, I always thought about, to put this three hours experience on stage. My brother passed away just a week after I visited him. And so, I always wanted to put a show together about this experience. So, that's what really happened -

GRANT: "Sing Brother Sing".

JIANG: -- now. You know, a one-man show, which just premiered in Beijing. And it's called, "Sing Brother Sing".

GRANT: That's incredible, because when you were telling me that story before about the three hours, I could see you were there again. You're reliving it again. So, every time you go on stage -

JIANG: Right.

GRANT: -- you relive that. And that's - that has to be emotionally hard as well as - as well as honoring your brother - it's tough for you, yes?

JIANG: It's tough for me very much. I mean, you know, it's very difficult because, you know, I'm opera singer. On stage I'm always, you know, in another character - a French nobleman and an Italian king and a Spanish high priest or something - but this time I'm just myself on stage.

GRANT: In the performance, do you find that you find yourself back home again, as well?

JIANG: Absolutely, yes. Actually, it's good for me to do this one- man show, "Sing Brother Sing". "Sing Brother Sing". And I could go back to the past and then that made me think about future. Where to go.


GRANT: I can't let you go without at least hearing just a little bit of your beautiful voice.


GRANT: Would you give us a couple of notes?





JIANG: I still have time. While you are chopping, there's a secret.

DR. LIAO: When you put salt on, they don't jump. They don't - they're not as messy. Tian is very messy already.

JIANG: Really. You don't expect too much from a singer, OK? I think I'm the only one in the world chopping cabbages 20 minutes before rehearsal. So, be happy wife.


JIANG: My darling wife.


GRANT: It's incredible, when I look at your life and see these moments. The moment with your father. The moment with the man who said, "You have a good voice". But also your wife. Meeting the woman who would become your wife. Tell me about the role that she played in making you believe in yourself.

JIANG: My wife, actually, of course, is my boss.


GRANT: Everyone's wife is their boss.

JIANG: And she is a scientist. She is a wonderful human geneticist. I met her in China in '82 in Shanghai, because she was a visiting scholar from the states. And brought up in Hong Kong and went to the States for her education. And so, she was on the faculty in Denver at the medical school of CU.

I went to University of Denver. So, we became very close friends, of course. Fall in love later.

GRANT: And she played piano for you?

JIANG: Absolutely. And she studied piano and she played for me. Actually, for my first recital in the states. Martha actually gave up her career as a scientist - early retired, let's say - in 1996. Because my singing schedule became very busy and a mess.

GRANT: But she believed in you. And did that help you to believe that you could make it? Is that what really gave you that sense of purpose and belief?

JIANG: You know, she really thought I had no other abilities. Only could sing. So, that's -


GRANT: You'd better make the most of it.

JIANG: Right. What happened was, we were in love and I was just a poor student and had no major contracts waiting for me outside of the school. So we talk about marriage a few times, but I couldn't promise, you know, anything for her. Because I couldn't support a family. That was January first, 1988. So I said - you know, I told myself, "Two years you have to make it in".

GRANT: And you did.

JIANG: So things start to happen in 1990s. Found an agent in New York. He set up a series of auditions for me. And the major audition was at the Met. So, things start to happen. And I received - I remembered - I received my first contract from the Met. And that's a whole year, five operas, paid vacation, the health insurance -


JIANG: And I was in Denver, at home. I got this big envelope. I called Martha immediately. I said, "Martha, can you come home now?" And she said, "No, I'm busy at work. I can't. Why?" I said, "Well, we should get married today".


GRANT: I've got the contract.

JIANG: She was quiet about a few seconds and she said, "OK, I'll be home in 10 minutes".

GRANT: Wow. When you think of yourself now - you're a singer, you're Chinese - you were born here, but you've lived in the U.S. for such a long time. How would you describe yourself? You Chinese? Are you American? Where do you belong?

JIANG: I think I'm a mixed person now. Because you can tell I'm not that young. I spent my first 29 years in China. Second 29 years in the States and, you know, worldwide. So, you know, I'm really half-and-half. Mixed with the Chinese and the Western culture. Mixed with the Chinese and the Western music.

GRANT: When you came back, did you ever see that piano teacher?

JIANG: Piano teacher? Actually -

GRANT: The one that you -

JIANG: Absolutely. And the 30-some years after he was disappeared for five years, I came back to Beijing and I found him.

GRANT: You apologize to him?

JIANG: I apologize to him. I told him - I said, "Mr. Jiao (ph), Teacher Jiao (ph), I just want to tell you and I felt so sorry about your tragedy during that period. And I was - I just want to tell you because I was so happy when you were in trouble. I couldn't understand that your tragedy - that was, you know - how terrible for you in your life during that period. I celebrated, and I was running around to celebrate your tragedy -"

GRANT: He forgave you?

JIANG: He was in tears. He was in tears and he told me - he said, "Wow, that was a very difficult period for everybody. It was hard to say who was right, who was wrong. And everybody was under huge pressure and I forgive you. Because you were only -"

GRANT: A boy.

JIANG: "-10 years old".

GRANT: Yes. And, of course, from that moment, your life really took off. It's been a real pleasure to speak to you. But I can't let you go without at least hearing just a little bit of your beautiful voice.


GRANT: Could you give us a couple of notes? Anything. A favorite of yours.

JIANG (singing): Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. From glen to glen and down the mountainside. The summer's gone and all the flowers are dying. It's you, it's you must go and I must bide.