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Beijing, Beijing ... I sing, Beijing!

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

09:06, August 27, 2012

(Photo from China Daily)

Some unusual music is being heard around the Chinese capital these days, as a group of foreign musicians tries to wrap their tongues around the local language and memorize traditional tunes. Chen Nan lends them an ear.

Lucas van Lierop is trying to sing the part of the evil landlord in the classic Chinese revolutionary musical, White-Haired Girl. He waits for the music to swell, takes a deep breath and tries to hit the crescendo again. What bounces off the walls of the university classroom in the northern part of the capital city is beginning to sound more and more like the classical operatic style he's trying so hard to replicate.

"Wo ji ji mang mang hui jia qu ..." he sings in Chinese, trying to convince the audience he's hurrying home, but getting the Chinese words exactly right is proving to be more difficult than hitting the high notes.

But that has been part of Van Lierop's rather steep learning curve in China.

A gifted tenor who sings City Opera Vancouver production Fallujah, Van Lierop, 23, is one of 21 young opera singers from the United States, Canada and Mexico taking part in I Sing Beijing, a cultural exchange program that has brought them to the Forbidden City - to sing opera, in Chinese.

That is why Van Lierop is working hard on his part in The White-Haired Girl, adapted from a film and first performed as an opera in 1945.

"When I got the script, I did a lot of research on the history and background, so I can better understand why the story happened and why the roles speak those lines," says Van Lierop, who plays the role of the despotic landlord Huang Shiren.

"I was trained in bel canto opera, which is mellow to the ears, while Chinese opera sounds shrill and tense. The tones of the language already challenge me, let alone the singing. I have to think and sing with a different logic. But now I am learning it, I'm realizing it's really cool."

The month-long I Sing Beijing program concludes on Aug 28 with a concert at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which will showcase a selection from both traditional and contemporary Chinese operas, and classical Western pieces, such as West Side Story and Faust.

Tian Haojiang is a Chinese opera singer who migrated to the US 30 years ago, and he mooted the cultural exchange initiative, now in its second year.

Tian, the first Chinese opera star to perform at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, decided to start the project because he saw how little the West knew and understood about China and Chinese opera.

He had spent decades singing in Italian, German and French. He hopes the program will allow opera practitioners in the West to know more about Chinese culture, and using Mandarin as a lyric language.

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