Operatic singer’s life has taken him ‘from Mao to the Met’

The first American song that world-class opera singer Hao Jiang Tian (MA ’87) knew by heart was “Red River Valley,” which was scandalous.

Tian grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, working in an electrical boiler factory with 3,000 other young men for more than six and a half years. From that low vantage point, he never imagined he would one day sing with Plácido Domingo.

“I became known as an underground singer,” Tian says. “I sang pop songs and love songs, which were forbidden during that period. All American songs were forbidden, even ‘Red River Valley.’”

Tian says his big break came one afternoon as he stood outside a friend’s apartment building. Not wanting to walk the stairs, he stood in the street and hollered up at his friend’s fifth-floor window.

“Someone on the fourth floor opened his window and asked if I was a singer,” says Tian. “He was a professional singer and he asked me to his apartment. I stayed about five minutes and he said, ‘You may have a career.’

“That moment changed my life,” says Tian. “It brought me to America, to DU, to the Met and to the world.”

Yes, he means the Metropolitan Opera, where he has performed regularly since 1991. He was the first Chinese bass to perform in South America and in Italy. In addition to Domingo, he has performed with Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, Sherrill Milnes and many other opera stars in more than 1,300 performances worldwide.

No wonder Tian is receiving the Professional Achievement Award from the University of Denver this year.

Despite all these grand venues, Tian says he will never forget his first performance at the Lamont School of Music.

“It was an opera called Susannah, and it was the first time I ever sang in an opera,” he says. “I had only one line with words, but it was an important step in my operatic career. I was nervous the whole night, waiting for my chance to sing that solo phrase.

“The funny thing was that I had a few friends in the audience and after my line, they asked each other, ‘Who was that big voice?’”

Lois Morris is a freelance writer collaborating with Tian on his memoir — Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to The Met — due out on May 2. She says Tian’s life is “a series of incredible adventures.”

“He is historic,” Morris says. “He is the first world-class opera singer to come out of China. He grew up in the Cultural Revolution, and he also faced being a Chinese singer in the very snooty world of opera where they think only Italians or Westerners can perform opera. And yet, here is this humble man, full of joy and excitement, singing all over the world.”

Tian lives in New York City with his wife, Martha, and two pets — a singing parrot and an English spaniel. He plans to sing as long as he can and then return to Colorado, saying he is a “mountain boy” at heart.

“I’m going to stay in the mountains, write poems, read and paint,” says Tian, a smile in his voice. “Then, I’ll take my poems and drawings to town to sell them, stock up on food and wine, and go back to the mountains.”

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