Classical Chinese opera singer Shen Na’s Lincoln Center concert in late September brought a newly re-emergent art form into one of the West’s premier cultural venues
In collaboration with Italian conductor Roberto Gianola and Italian tenor Gianluca Sciarpelletti, leading Chinese soprano Shen Na and other Chinese artists presented a spectacular world-level musical program to some 1,000 audience members in the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on September 25.
Since the original opera Turandot was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death, the last duet in this new adaptation, was completed with a duet by a Chinese composer, and premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing in 2008. “I believe that our American audience will be very impressed by this version,” Shen told reporters in early September.
The “Beauty of China, Show the World” concert, a coproduction between Shen, pianist Liu Shih Kun and violinist Lü Siqing, Shen featured four arias, including three from Puccini’s La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Shen also teamed up with tenor Gianluca to perform the patriotic Chinese-language song “I Love You, China.”
Shen has been constantly traveling around the world performing and collaborating with internationally renowned orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of France, Russia’s Mullins Theater Symphony Orchestra, the Belgrade Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Macao Orchestra. In 2007, Shen wrapped up her US tour as the lead in the opera adaptation of the Hong Kong film Farewell My Concubine.
Shen fondly remembers her first reactions from US audiences. “I knew that traditional Chinese operas telling Chinese stories attracted people with their cultural elements, particularly the exotic colors and gorgeous costumes.” “However,” she added, “[Chinese opera] is not world-level classical art, since its language is mostly incomprehensible for Westerners.”
Shen’s Lincoln Center appearance was far less visually spectacular. Pared-down performances of beloved Italian favorites allowed Shen to reach out to lovers of classical opera on their own terms. “I prefer this chance to win people’s hearts through real art rather than attracting my audience with fancy costumes,” she told our reporter.
Shen Na began learning violin, dance and singing from the age of six. Decades of practice turned her into a superb performing artist with the rare ability to sing, dance and act with equal verve. In her own words, it is “hard work and practice since childhood” that has cultivated her talents as a soprano who has won dozens of international awards including second place at the 2005 Toulouse International Vocal Competition.
She is currently a soprano at the Central Opera House of China, a member of the Association of Chinese Performers and a guest professor at the Music Department of the People’s Liberation Army Arts Academy.
“On stage, opera singers are required to present their best performance to the audience, no matter their physical condition,” Shen Na told NewsChina. “To maintain a healthy body and mind, I need to get sufficient sleep and food, and not indulge in drinking alcohol or smoking.” Shen has appeared on stage on several occasions while seriously ill. “The audience won’t care if you have a cold. What they are concerned about is your performance. That’s what makes opera such a respectful classical art form.”
In Shen’s opinion, the number of Chinese opera singers is definitely increasing. Nevertheless, she claims that “the persistence of the younger generation in pursuit of artistic accomplishment might not be comparable to that of the old masters.”
Shen calls former star soprano Zhou Xiaoyan a particular inspiration in this regard. “Madam Zhou Xiaoyan dedicated her whole life to opera singing and teaching - even when she was in her nineties - selflessly sharing her knowledge,” Shen said, adding that the younger generation of Chinese opera singers lack this devotion to their craft. “I treasure this career and always expect to touch people’s hearts through my performances.”
Opera, particularly classical opera, is only now beginning to earn a following in China. Thanks to the construction of the grandiose National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in central Beijing, China’s elite, at least, can access some of the most accomplished international productions of world-famous classical operas.
By establishing its own orchestra and inviting world-renowned conductors and singers to perform, the NCPA holds regular opera performances drawing tens of thousands of fans.
“More and more Chinese people are willing to buy tickets for classical opera performances, a very positive sign for its development,” said Shen Na. However, she admits that classical opera has a long way to go before it can compete with more popular forms of entertainment, as China lacks both exposure to classical Western art forms and the talent pool needed by such a meticulous performance art.
“However, [China’s] domestic opera singers are lucky to be born in an era when China is experiencing unprecedented development in the arts,” Shen Na told our reporter. “There is a huge emerging market.”
With the concert at Lincoln Center on September 25, Shen Na and her team hope to enhance China’s cultural achievements by showing US audiences just how far their native land has come.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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