Arts and Cultural Exchange Unites Communities in Opera and Song

College of Music and China Conservatory of Music celebrate 10 years, MSU Year of China.

China Conservatory of Music and MSU Alumnus conductor Youqing Yang rehearse with China Conservatory of Music alumnus and current MSU student Zaikuan Song for the opening Savage Land performance. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
MSU students Aaron Petrovich, Tyler Martin, and Alina Tamborini display the Spartan flag at the Great Wall of China as MSU Quinn Rulison captures the moment. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
China Conservatory of Music student Tian Xia and MSU student Tyler Martin watch the action from the wings of back stage during the Bernstein Sings America performance. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
“MSU-CHINA!!” China Conservatory of Music and MSU College of Music casts conduct their pre-performance bonding ritual prior to curtain at MSU’s Fairchild Theatre. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
The entire cast and faculty pose together on the steps of MSU’s Fairchild following the final performance. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

Thirteen students from MSU joined 13 students from China in an operatic production and musical revue this spring that marked a significant anniversary, celebrated MSU's Year of China, and provided a unique cultural experience for students from two continents.

In early 2016, the MSU-China Vocal Collaboration merged with the MSU Opera Theatre and the China Conservatory of Music in a spectacular production that coincided with the program's 10th anniversary and the university-wide celebration of China. Since 2005, the collaboration has brought together more than 80 voice students from the College of Music and six different conservatories in China in a life changing learning experience that involves traveling to and performing in each other's countries.

This year's two-part program consisted of a Chinese opera and a theatrical revue of Leonard Bernstein music. Chinese participants selected “Savage Land”—a western-style opera of vengeance and lost love told through classical and Chinese folk music. The second half of the production was selected by U.S. participants, and featured pieces from some of Bernstein's best-known theatre productions.

After weeks of preparation and rehearsals, the combined 26 students performed in Beijing at the China Conservatory of Music and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in early March. The group then returned to East Lansing to perform at the MSU Fairchild Theatre at the end of the month.

The program captivated audiences on both continents, and attracted coverage from local, state, and national media. A 30-minute documentary on the vocal collaboration and opera is in the works for MSU and slated for broadcast through The Big 10 Network in the fall of 2016.

Generous donors helped make the international student travel experience possible, including Doug and Brenda Jewell, Drs. Lou A. and Roy J. Simon, Barbara Wagner, and Loren and Carol Wall. The experience was also supported through a grant from the Worthington Family Foundation, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“This private support helped make possible a creative international collaboration that was life changing for the participants and impactful for the many audience members who attended on both continents,” says James Forger, dean of the College of Music.

Faculty from MSU and the China Conservatory of Music included Youqing Yang (an MSU alumnus now teaching at the China Conservatory), David Rayl, and Brandon Hults, conductors; Haijing Fu and Melanie Helton, stage directors; and Haijing Fu, Richard Fracker, and Song Yi, producers for the MSU/China Vocal Exchange.


A panoramic view of the pre-concert rehearsal at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Courtesy MSU, photo by Kurt Stepnitz.
MSU-China Co-Founders/Directors Haijing Fu and Richard Fracker watch the progress of the students along with Melanie Helton, director of MSU Opera Theatre. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

Here is what some of the students and faculty from MSU and the China Conservatory of Music said about this year's unique production.

“There is no question that this collaboration profoundly impacted all participants on many levels. The students and faculty had to work cooperatively and unselfishly for the project to succeed musically. In turn, personal relationships developed, recognizing the values that we shared in common, as well as the cultural differences and perspectives that challenged us to find a common path.

“At times when tensions were high, challenges seemingly insurmountable, fatigue at its apex, I wondered if we had given ourselves enough time and had enough will to succeed. We did.”

– Richard Fracker, MSU professor of voice and chair of the vocal arts area

Rehearsal pauses for discussion and notes from Professors Helton and Fu. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

“We are back from the U.S. a little more than a month and it seems just like yesterday. We are still thinking about the ‘Savage Land’ and the Bernstein pieces. Each year the program improves a lot and we find new things. This is why it must continue, I hope, for many more years.”

Music Conservatory of China faculty member Fu Haijing

David Rayl, MSU professor of music conducts the first joint rehearsal with the orchestra and singers at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

“I was overwhelmed by how diligently the Chinese students had worked to learn the Bernstein—not just the music and words but the choreography as well. And I was incredibly impressed with how well our MSU students learned the difficult score to the Savage Land and mastered the Mandarin as well.

“Once we started rehearsing the Bernstein together, I stopped thinking about who was American and who was Chinese. Each student, regardless of where they were from, used those wonderful songs to tap into common emotional experiences of human beings: love, loss, vanity, insecurity, and hope.”

– David Rayl, MSU professor of music, director of choral programs, and associate dean

Director of MSU Opera Theatre Melanie Helton works with the Chinese and American students in an early rehearsal at MSU’s Fairchild Theatre. MSU photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

“I think we often think first about the Chinese influences on the sciences, and overlook that China is a nation of a billion or more people. Nearly every major city has an opera house, and they're extremely interested in Western opera. Although we were dealing with language barriers, it was amazing how all our students got along and worked together. There was a real sense of camaraderie and we all got to know each other really well.”

– Melanie Helton, MSU professor of voice and director of the MSU Opera Theatre

Schyler Sheltrown sings the role of Jin Zi as MSU student Steve Martin and China Conservatory of Music student Yi-Han Xu play their. Photo by Harley Seeley.

“The language barrier was tough at first, but then coming together on the piece … and the music, we got to know each other as performers. We all came together to sing the Bernstein piece (at the end of the show)—it's the pinnacle of a collaboration; when you're doing it, it becomes bigger than us all.”

– Schyler Sheltrown, MSU master's student, vocal performance, three-time participant in MSU-China Vocal Collaboration

China Conservatory of Music student Xinmu Cao’s “Glitter and Be Gay” dazzles the Fairchild audience as MSU student Aaron Petrovich provides character. Photo by Harley Seeley.

“We always talk about our singing. We also can teach each other. I have never sung in the theatre, just in a musical hall. I have more space on the stage. It's a challenge, and I'm very happy and excited now.”

– Xinmu Cao (Coco), vocal arts student, China Conservatory of Music

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