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Songs of wine and moon

Alumnus Hao Jiang Tian portrayed Chinese poet Li Bai in a world premiere at the Central City Opera. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In the year 762, during China’s Tang Dynasty, there lived an itinerant poet, Li Bai. He wrote of peach blossoms and battles, daydreams and drunkenness. Deep into his cups, China’s Poet Immortal drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat while trying to embrace the moon.

In July 2007, he was reborn.

Li Bai came back to life on stage at the Central City Opera, resurrected in a world premier by basso Hao Jiang Tian (MA music performance ’87).

The role was a dream come true for Tian, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, he explains, the trappings of Western culture were forbidden, as were ancient Chinese philosophy and literature. “We were very thirsty — eager to look into different things,” he says.

Li Bai’s were the first poems Tian read, and he quickly memorized dozens of them. “Li Bai opened the door to ancient Chinese literature,” he says. “In my heart, Li Bai was the most important Chinese poet in history.”

Tian says the opera Poet Li Bai, which is written in verse, allows him to share the beauty of Li Bai’s poems with a modern audience — to breach the gulf of ages and infuse history with new ideas.

A worthy challenge for a man who, in the last two decades, has performed more than 50 operatic roles — 26 of them at the Metropolitan Opera. But, he says, Li Bai — his first title role, and sung in Chinese, no less — was his most challenging part yet.

Although Tian is fluent in Chinese, he primarily sings opera in Italian and French. Adapting to Chinese opera required months of training. “I could feel my whole throat asking questions,” he says.

If Tian’s speaking voice is soft and buttery, his singing voice is molten chocolate. Critics consistently praise his rich, full, flexible voice, which can command or caress a note with equal acuity.

His former classmates describe him as a brilliant artist and humble man, recalling the shy classmate who arrived in Colorado with a guitar, $50 in his pocket and hardly a word of English beyond the John Denver songs he’d memorized.

When he landed at DU in 1983, Tian recalls, China had just opened the door to the world. “Before I came to DU,” Tian recalls, “I had never had a performance on stage, had never seen an opera.” Although he had the voice for it, “It was difficult for me to step into the door of opera because it included acting, singing, interpretation of characters.”

Through required weekly classroom performances, DU’s Lamont School of Music forced Tian out of his box. His first operatic role was a small one in a Lamont production of Susannah. “I had to learn a square dance,” Tian says wryly. “I didn’t know how to dance at all. I was supposed to lead the young lady.

“It took me at least two years to feel more comfortable on stage.”

Poet Li Bai brought Tian full circle, sharing his cultural heritage with an American audience.

It was especially meaningful, he says, to premier the opera in Colorado, where he got his start, and to include a chorus of Lamont students directed by fellow Lamont graduate Catherine Sailer (BM ’95, MM ’97).

Tian will continue performing classic operas for now although, nearing the apex of his career, his interest has shifted to new works. In San Francisco next August he’ll star in another world premiere — this time as a villain in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

“Great classics should be shared,” Tian says. But, he adds, “New music is the future of the world.”

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