hide captionTian plays Chinese poet Li Bai in the new eponymous opera, which just saw its European premiere in Rome.
Tian plays Chinese poet Li Bai in the new eponymous opera, which just saw its European premiere in Rome.
For more than 20 years, the basso voice of Hao Jiang Tian has filled major American opera houses. As one of the few Chinese stars in opera, his life story is as remarkable as his work.
Like so many artists who came of age during China's Cultural Revolution, he worked in a factory as a teenager. Yet somehow, he was able to develop as a singer — after growing up hating his piano lessons. Now, Hao Jiang Tian (or Tian, as he prefers to be called) is a regular fixture at the Metropolitan Opera.
He also has a new memoir out, titled Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met. Tian spoke with host John Schaefer about his long journey to New York's premier opera house.
Though China's population sits at well over one billion, with many music students among that number, Tian is one of the few opera singers to emerge from China.
"We have many great voice teachers, but we don't have coaches," he says. "And we have, of course, wonderful conductors there, but not enough experience for conducting operas."
The Cultural Revolution, Untelevised
Born in Beijing during the mid-1950s, Tian grew up in a musical family. His father a conductor and his mother a composer, he was forced to take piano lessons — which he hated, as he initially wanted to be a painter. "I was always practicing piano in tears, actually," Tian says.
The arrival of the Cultural Revolution brought some relief from the opprobrium of the piano — though it would later turn to remorse.
"So one happiest day came when I heard an announcement from the loudspeakers: My piano teacher was arrested as a counterrevolutionary," Tian says. "And then I was so happy. And so immediately I ran to the courtyard, screaming and jumping with joy.
"Thirty years later, actually, I went back to Beijing — I went to see him, and I told him I wanted to apologize to him because when he was arrested, I was so happy. And he laughed with tears in his eyes, and he said, 'Well, that was a crazy period, and it was so hard to figure out who was right and who was wrong.'"
Today, China counts around 30 million piano students. The country accounted for eight of the 35 entrants in the latest Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. But when Tian was growing up, it was a different climate for music students.
"The major conservatories were very closed when the Cultural Revolution started, for four or five years," Tian says. "And then they opened just to selected students — like if you were a young Communist Party member, if you were a good young worker, farmer, you would be selected to the colleges and universities. Until 1976."
A Wild Child, A Big Voice
Not that Tian was looking to go to music school. His parents were sent off to re-education camps, and he was assigned to factory work before he even turned 15. Left to his own devices, Tian says that he was happy to be a rebellious teenager.
"Well, I started smoking, drinking, picking fights with other young people," he says. "And [I] escaped from the factory to the mountains for days. And breaking into libraries to steal books, you know, singing underground songs ... love songs mostly were forbidden."
Though he began singing popular ballads of his day, it was a chance encounter with another singer in 1975 which opened Tian's eyes to a career in music.
"I went to another side of the city to look for a friend," he says. "I didn't climb up to the fifth floor to his apartment, so I was just yelling his name outside: 'Hui, are you home, hey?'" His friend wasn't home — but another neighbor was. "Another gentleman appeared on a window and asked me whether I was a singer. I said no, and said 'Why?' He said, 'Because you have a big voice.'
"So then we start to talk, just for a couple of minutes, and he was a professional singer, and he said, 'Well, you have a big voice, and you may have a career as a professional singer.' So actually that couple of minutes changed my life."
A year later, China's conservatories were re-opened. In Tian's audition for a spot at the Beijing Conservatory, he was the only singer selected among nearly 500 applicants.
Up Close at the Met
In December 1983, Tian spent a week in New York. He remembers it well — it was the first time he had ever gone to the opera.
"And I had $35 in my pocket, and I had probably about four or five English words," he says. "Like, 'hi,' 'bye,' 'hello.' But my experience was unforgettable. The next day, the 17th, I spent $8. I bought a standing pass — I went to the Met for the opera Ernani. And the star tenor was Pavarotti, and Sherrill Milnes the baritone, and the conductor was Maestro [James] Levine. And that was my first-ever life experience for opera, was at the Met.
"Well, after the first intermission, an older couple came to me and started talking to me. And also showing me the tickets in their hand. And I thought they wanted to sell me their tickets, so I kept saying, 'No, no, no, no-no-no.' And they kept saying, 'Yes, yes-yes, yes!' And finally they forced the tickets in my hand and left. ... I found out later the tickets were for the seats in the middle of the fifth row, in the center — the most expensive tickets. So when the opera started, the maestro Levine was just 20 feet in front of me, and Pavarotti was just in front of my face."
Tian says he was dazzled by the experience. Ten years later to the day, he returned to the Metropolitan Opera — this time on stage.
"And 10 years, exactly same day, 17th of December 1993, I was on stage with Pavarotti together at the Met," he says. "The opera was called I Lombardi. So I found a chance to tell him the story 10 years ago — you know, my first visit, my first life experience in the opera house.
"And so when we went out for the curtain bow, he grabbed my hand, went out with me together. And he held my hand with his left hand, and he used his right hand to draw attention from the audience to applaud me. And he repeated that to me in the rest [of the] seven performances."