JHWilliams-China

Dr Jeremy Huw Williams in China

During my three visits to China in 2015 and 2016 as an invited artist-teacher, I was very impressed by the wealth of pure vocal talent cultivated by such a vast country. The current teaching encourages good vocal production, but even in the leading conservatoire in Beijing, students are lagging behind their western peers in terms of musicianship and languages, and also stage deportment. Furthermore, it seems that few professors in China are able to furnish the students with the required skills needed for an international career. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the best Chinese singers have left their country for careers in the west.

In various locations on tour in China I have aimed to perform music by mostly well-known western composers who are largely unknown to the Chinese audience. Art song is an unfamiliar genre to most Chinese audiences, even music students. Most Chinese students of voice are interested in opera only, but even that is performed with unidiomatic control of language and understanding. My performances in China are always presented trilingually in Welsh, English and Chinese, focusing on correct pronunciation of every language; in China I have performed music from Wales, England, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Norway, Russia and the USA. I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction of Chinese audiences to programmes of song repertoire. I feel that I am in a good position to help Chinese singers in China, whilst at the same time performing western music for them, particularly Lieder, mélodie, and art song in general (in Welsh and in English). Song repertoire is rarely heard in China. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution there has been a great interest in western music, but as far as singing is concerned, the main emphasis is on nineteenth-century Italian opera, with the occasional inclusion of an eighteenth-century aria, usually Mozart, or a German or French operatic selection. If Chinese singers are to succeed on an international stage (to which they aspire), it is imperative that they embrace a wide variety of music from many western countries. There seems to be little interest at the moment in music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Having judged at the National Eisteddfod for many years, and given master classes throughout the USA and in the Far East, I find it satisfying to be able to help Chinese students in their quest to conquer the perils of western languages and western musical notation. My collaborator is Regents’ Professor Emerita of the University of Arizona, Dr Paula Fan, the first coach ever to be invited to China in the early 1980s, teaching at the Central, Tianjin, Xian, Shenyang and Chengdu Conservatories. She in her turn is teaching me to sing in Chinese and to this end I have commissioned a song cycle in the Chinese language by the Beijing-based composer Nicholas Smith OBE, who also has a home in Wales. Last year in Hangzhou we also recorded a series of televised lessons for Chinese students.

Many students, even the advanced ones, are working from spurious scores, and have little idea about the dramatic situation of any given operatic aria. They know little of the profession itself and of the competition that they may face in Europe and in the USA. On my previous visit to China last year I was able to identify specific problems that the Chinese encounter when singing western languages. Despite the open vowels that are part of their language, they are inclined to produce diphthongs, which are contrary to good bel canto technique and the correct singing of western languages. There is also a common difficulty of rolling the ‘r’, which is crucial for the singing of Italian, for example. Furthermore, singers confuse the consonants ‘n’ and ‘m’, and frequently insert ‘n’ after a vowel where no such consonant is present. Some singers were unable to read music (having been admitted on the basis of their voices alone) or understand foreign languages, and most were ignorant in matters of musical period style.

During my time in China last year I also lectured on Welsh music and performed in Welsh, including the music of pre-eminent Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott. The Chinese professors and students were most interested to hear the Welsh language being sung, having no knowledge of it, despite being familiar with the melodies of folk tunes such as The Ash Grove, which I sang in the original language.

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