For four years running, the iSING! initiative to bring opera talent from across the world together in Suzhou to infuse their art with Chinese characteristics has become a fixture on the calendar for students and fans of the art form.
This is not only because the program has consistently nurtured the top tier opera talent of tomorrow, but also because it bridges cultures by melding artistic traditions and creating new and exciting explorations in the operatic form.
This year's iSING! Suzhou was the most ambitious yet. Running from July 24 to August 29, it culminated in the first ever full opera performance at the Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre in Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). The first half of the program was a staging of Puccini's one-act opera Gianni Schicchi. The second half featured performances by the international cohort of iSING! students, singing in Mandarin.
It was the climax of a life-changing experience for the 43 international students, all who had won their places on the full-scholarship program through competitive auditions in seven cities. Students hailed from the United States, China, Israel, Poland, France, Chile, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Hungary, Russia, Germany and Croatia.
The students received intensive training in modern Western and Chinese opera and the Chinese language from distinguished experts representing the top opera houses in the world. They also delivered mini shows at the city's landmark Suzhou Museum, brought opera to workers by showing up at their office buildings dressed as couriers, clerks and engaged with the broader public through art lectures.
As Founder & Art Director of iSING!, world-renowned bass singer Mr. Tian Haojiang has been at the helm of the program since its beginning.
"This was the first time Suzhou produced a western opera and we are very proud. It really was an international team that put this together. Our coaches came from Italy, as did our lead baritone, designers from London and Sydney, and the cast was a mixture of singers from all over the world."
Forming Lasting Bonds through Artistic Understanding
The iSING! program has consistently won rapturous praise from its participants, audience members, experts and the media.
New York Times music writer Val Haller said of a performance of one alumna, Guanqun Yu: "My business is live music, but this took my breath away. I'd never heard anything so strong and pure - I wept."
It's unsurprising that graduates of the program are of such a high caliber when you take a look at the experts iSING! counts among its faculty.
They include such luminaries as special guest master teacher Lenore Rosenberg, the Associate Artistic Administrator of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has served extensively on the judging panel of many international competitions, and in 2015 was the recipient of the Gerda Lissner Foundation's distinguished achievement award.
The newest addition to the iSING! faculty is Jindong Cai, an orchestra conductor and professor at Stanford University. He has twice won the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music.
Meanwhile, iSING! faculty veteran Francesco Aliberti returned this year as vocal coach. Chorus master at the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Salerno, Aliberti has worked with some of the most distinguished conductors of our time.
The graduates are also expected to serve as ambassadors and influencers in terms of promoting understanding, acceptance and enjoyment of Chinese culture across the world, in line with the theories of Joep Leerssen, Professor of Modern European Literature at the University of Amsterdam. Leerssen has noted that, in terms of the cultural character of a nation, "the content is national but the sharing of ideas and practices among a trans-national body of practitioners ensure the form is international."
A Launch-pad for New Adventures in Art
The city of Suzhou has played a very special role in the iSING! story, and its impression radiates through the work that the program's graduates go on to be involved in.
"Suzhou truly combines the ancient and the modern," says Dr. Martha Liao, the program's Executive Director. "The city is fortunate to have these young, immensely talented voices come together. Our alumni have gone on to perform on some of the world's most recognized international stages."
This magical and inspiring aspect of Suzhou is something that is not lost on students participating in the program such as Andrea Zaupa, who played the key role of Schicchi in the grand finale performance.
"I'm lucky, because this is the third time I have been invited to iSING! Suzhou. I am studying here in China with amazing teachers," Zaupa says. "I like walking around Suzhou and taking pictures. Once you train your heart to be sensitive to music, it becomes sensitive to other stuff as well."
Fellow student Holly Flack, a Vienna-based American singer visiting Suzhou for the first time, is similarly entranced by the city.
"I really love Suzhou, and I'm so grateful to be here. It's fun getting to know the culture. This is a city that has a long history and there are areas that are quite new - you can take one stop on the metro and go back in time 2000 years, then take another ride and be back in the modern world. That contrast is really amazing. The food has been great too. There are so many dishes I don't even know what I'm eating."
That such initiatives have left their marks on performers speaks to the effectiveness of their role in promoting artistic engagement between East and West. The influence is seen in the work of alumna Juliet Petrus, who participated in iSING! Suzhou in 2014 and released her first album in 2015, A Great Distance: A Collection of Chinese and American Art Song, with pianist Lydia Qiu.
Petrus's body of work is a perfect example of the type of artistic cross-fertilization that iSING! seeks to foster, and she finds herself in great demand in both the United States and China as one of the few Western interpreters of Chinese music. An accomplished singer, violist, pianist and former musical-theater choreographer, she performed at New York's Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and toured the US and France. She is a founding member of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, and served as a teaching artist for both Lyric Opera of Chicago and City Colleges of Chicago from 2008-2016.
Suzhou's Role as a Cultural Crossroads
It is no surprise that Suzhou has been such a good fit for the iSING! initiative. Along with the city's long history of art and culture, according to Mr. Zhang Liang, the general manager of Suzhou Arts Performance Co., Ltd, SIP has engaged in a number of successful efforts to encourage the flourishing of the arts with a focus on international cooperation."The aim for us has been to establish Suzhou as a place that can bring people, ideas and art together in a creative atmosphere of cooperation," Zhang says.
Recent exhibitions have included Idiorrhythmic: Chinese and Canadian Artists' Urban Public Space Creation, which featured works by leading Canadian conceptual artist Iain Baxter&, whose highly regarded conceptual installations and projects, as well as his photography, have earned him the label of 'the Marshall McLuhan of the visual arts'; and the China Suzhou Biennial International Pastel Art Exhibition, with 60 participating artists including representatives from Spain (Vicente Romero Redondo), France (Liliane Desmarest), the UK (Tony Allain), the USA (Nancy King Mertz, Desmond O'Hagan), and Singapore (Isabelle V. Lim).
Efforts in the realm of performing arts have included the establishment of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra in 2016, which recruited performers from across the globe and had a hit tour of Europe in the summer of 2017; and the international shows by Suzhou Ballet Troupe, which included a performance of Legend of Beauty in Singapore followed by popular community-engagement activities, and a sell-out performance of The Nutcracker to a record audience of 7,000 people in Bahrain and Qatar.
Meanwhile, The Flower Season Youth Art Troupe of the SIP Youth & Children Center travelled to Singapore as part of the 1st Singapore-China Youth Art Festival to perform songs and dances.
Ms. Yao Wenlei, Deputy Director of SIP's Publicity Department and Bureau Chief of Cultural Affairs, says she believes that international playwrights, painters, sculptors and musicians are best placed to help curate a community of character, and help the wider world understand and appreciate Chinese culture.
"Without a doubt, culture and artworks that uniquely reflect a range of experiences, values and emotions are tremendously bonding," she said. "Fostering cultural vitality is not only good for the region, but also for SIP as a global talent hub."