Introducing the art song

Updated: 2014-12-23 07:31

By Chen Nan(China Daily)

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Chinese soprano Zhang Liping has released a new album, titled Schubert: Night and Dreams, in which she performs 18 romantic art songs by Franz Schubert, including Die Mainacht and Der Winterabend.

Zhang, 49, who has built an international reputation by performing with many of the world's leading opera houses, including the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Metropolitan Opera, is dedicating the album to the beloved Austrian composer and, more importantly, hopes to introduce the music genre lieder, or art songs, to Chinese audiences.

"I have a special love for lieder, which refers to short works setting poems to music. In that category, Schubert's lieder are revolutionary. Unlike the grand and magnificent operas, art songs are soft and slow," says Zhang, who is known for playing the leading roles in Giacomo Puccini's operas, including Madame Butterfly and Turandot.

The soprano is fully aware that art songs don't have a market in China. However, she hopes to change that.

"Chinese audiences like operas because the scene is grand and singers usually perform in a high-pitched voice. In contrast, art songs are only arranged for a singer and an instrument, like a piano. It takes time and patience to immerse into the music and atmosphere," says Zhang.

She recorded the album at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, where she has performed a number of times. She will hold a concert at that venue on Saturday, along with Chinese pianist Zhang Jialin and harpist Sun Shi-meng. They will play Chinese art songs, including works by poet and composer Jiang Kui from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and extracts from the Chinese opera Xi Shi, in which Zhang played the leading role at the National Center for the Performing Arts in 2009.

In 2012, Zhang performed art songs from the West at a concert in Beijing, and afterward "an audience member asked me why I didn't perform Chinese art songs", she says. "I felt a little bit embarrassed, so I want to make it up this time."

Zhang has adapted several Chinese pop songs into art songs, such as The Evening Primrose and Olive Tree.

"China once had some beautiful art songs, especially poetry of the Song Dynasty, which was sung along with a guzheng (Chinese zither)," says pianist Zhang Jialin, who also collaborated with Zhang Liping on her new album. "But nowadays, people have lost interest in art songs and some don't even know what art songs are. We hope this concert will help listeners understand the beauty of art songs."

Born in Wuhan, Hubei province, to a classical musician and a dancer, Zhang received vocal training at Wuhan Conservatoire and graduated from the vocal opera department of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1989.

As a young student, she was chosen to perform with Placido Domingo, and the big break inspired her to pursue opera in the Western world by studying with Canadian soprano Phyllis Mailing at the Vancouver Academy of Music. In 1997, she moved to London and started her career in Europe. Besides her signature role as Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly, Zhang also won acclaim for her roles as Mimi in La Boheme and Gilda in Rigoletto at major opera houses.

"When I learned opera in China, the country had just started to open its doors to Western cultural influences. It took me a long time to understand different cultures and adjust to new surroundings," she recalls.

Now, as head of the vocal opera department of the Central Conservatory of Music, she believes that China offers so many more opportunities for up-and-coming opera singers.

"The problem is that students are influenced by the opera performance market in China now, which favors big productions and high-pitched voices. A great artist should be capable of interpreting any type of music. I want to use my experience in the Western opera world to broaden their vision and help them understand the Western art," she says.

(China Daily 12/23/2014 page20)