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A new language for Western opera: Chinese

On his first attempt, Nicholas Brownlee manages to spit out the sound "shee." His teacher patiently shakes her head.

"It's not 'shee,' it's 'xi,'" she says, pronouncing something close to "shee" but not quite the same. It means "west" in Chinese, and the sound doesn't exist in English.

Brownlee scribbles down some notes as the class moves onto "ri," which sounds like "err" and proves equally challenging. The room fills with renditions of "arr" and "ehh."

"Is anyone doing it correctly?" the 22-year-old American shouts in frustration.

A trained opera singer, he is one of 20 young foreign vocalists in Beijing this summer to learn how to sing opera in a new language: Mandarin. It's a daunting task that culminated Thursday night with a performance at the National Center for Performing Arts, the country's premier opera house.

China may be better known for its traditional Peking Opera, but a new generation of composers favors Western-style operas in Chinese.

So the government, in a bid at cultural diplomacy, organized the monthlong training program — dubbed "I Sing Beijing" — with help from the Colorado-based Asian Performing Arts Council and other overseas groups.

"You could say it's an experiment of sorts," said Tian Haojiang, head of the program and the Metropolitan Opera's most renowned singer from China. "We hope it will inspire Western singers and bring Chinese modern opera onto the world stage."

The participants were selected from 200 applicants from around the world. None spoke Chinese when they started.

Brownlee trained for and performed the lead in "Poet Li Bai," which had its international premiere in the U.S. in 2007 with Tian in the same role.

"I'd be lying to say I wasn't intimidated," said Brownlee, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Gulf Coast Regional Competition.

Tian, a bass singer who moved to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago to pursue Western opera, coached Brownlee.

At first glance, the husky former athlete from Mobile, Ala., with persimmon-tinted sideburns and freckles, bears little resemblance to the famous Tang Dynasty author revered as one of China's best poets. But as he begins to sing "Come to the Starry Night," Brownlee's passion comes through.

In high school, he chose sports over opera. But after watching "La Traviata" in college, he began honing his skills as a bass-baritone.

Brownlee quickly learned to absorb new languages as an opera singer, but Chinese has presented a new set of challenges.

"Singers are already sensitive to pitch, which is a big advantage in learning Mandarin," said Katherine Chu, a coach for the program. "But certain words, like 'zi' and 'zhi,' aren't singer-friendly. These words can tighten the jaw so we have to teach them how to carry the tones."

The proper placement of words is also important.

"When opera singers read "wo bu zhi dao," which means "I don't know," they instinctively want to separate "dao" from the rest of the sentence, because they are used to singing that way in Italian," Chu said. "But in Chinese, it just doesn't make sense."

The students were paired with vocal and acting coaches to learn how to portray roles in some of the most well-known stories to Chinese audiences. The coaches included Peter McClintock, stage director for the Metropolitan Opera for more than 22 years.

Mezzo-soprano Maria McDaniel took on the role of Mai Shu from the modern opera "Chinese Orphan," singing a heartbreaking scene in which she learns she has to give up her child.

"It's a story that a lot of Chinese know, so I want to be able to move audiences with my performance, even though it's not my native language," the Atlanta native said.

As China's economy grows, so does investment in the arts. Local leaders are eager to build performing arts centers as a symbol that their city has arrived. The country boasts about 50 today, with more than 100 expected to be built in the next decade.

Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts hosts about a dozen operas a year, including classics such as "Tosca" and "Die Fledermaus."

For the Americans, the growing market in China contrasts with the shaky one at home.

"Funding for the arts is being cut in the U.S., and China is seen as a greener pasture for a lot of us," McDaniel said. "I definitely can see myself singing again in China one day."

Beijing recently announced plans to promote the global tour of a Chinese trio of tenors, including Dai Yuqiang, one of China's most famous tenors and a favorite of the late Luciano Pavarotti.

"Cultural influence is a form of soft power," said Kang Wei, chairman of the Beijing Performing Arts Group, which is co-sponsoring the tour. "Although it is not political it can still create a lasting effect."

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Follow Chi-Chi Zhang at http://twitter.com/thunderchi