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To Dai For: More on the Chinese Tenor

In today's Washington Post: The Chinese tenor who was offered a career in Pavarotti's footsteps, and didn't take the offer.

For me, this story began back in 2002 or so when a publicist at Universal handed me a confidential copy of a CD due for upcoming release with the name written on it in magic marker and said, Since you like voices so much, I think you should hear this tenor. Eventually, I got around to listening to it, and my husband and I were both electrified: Who's THAT?

It wasn't quite accurate to say that Dai hasn't sung in the West since 2007. In August, 2008, he sang in a Chinese production of the opera "Hua Mulan" (better known in the Disney movie version) that traveled to the Vienna State Opera. (I'm not sure whether this photo, from Dai's collection, is from the Vienna performance or an earlier one in China. With him is the folk singer Peng Liyuan.)

At that time, his name in the States was Dai Chiang. And the CD, though not perfect, shows a pretty impressive voice. I played an excerpt of it to an audience of colleagues at the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America that summer, and enjoyed the confusion as people tried to identify who was singing, since it was clearly a voice important enough that they should be able to recognize it.

So I started tracking Dai, informally (and took note when Rudas cancelled his planned "Turandot" tour at the tail end of my annual year-end roundup). A couple of years later, the CD was finally released commercially -- now, Dai was going by Yu Qiang Dai -- and I reviewed it for the New York Times. (At the time, I wondered how in the world a Universal recording had ended up on EMI; now, I figure that Tibor Rudas -- the mad Hungarian who masterminded the Three Tenors -- was working energetically behind the scenes to make sure it got released at all.) Obviously, when I learned I was going to China with the National Symphony Orchestra I immediately thought of looking him up and finding out what the real story was.

There wasn't room to tell all of it -- or say everything I hoped to say about Western opera in China, which is a topic I'll continue on the blog this week. Certainly Dai wasn't assured of stardom in the West, however hard Rudas pushed him -- which is exactly the reason he turned away. He said to me, "If I were not a superstar here, I probably would struggle and try to become" one in the West. But as it is, he has a flourishing career in China, with much less work.

There were a few things about Dai the performer that in the telling reminded me of Pavarotti: how he got so nervous before a performance that (in Dai's case) the opera houses had to prepare two complete costumes, because he would drench them with sweat; how he was able to work a crowd; how his acting was not his strong point; how critics often didn't care for him; how music aficionados tend to look down on his populist approach. Indeed, Pavarotti may not have been the best role model for Dai, since by the time Dai was studying with him, Pavarotti was focusing more on the easier, bigger money of pop performances than serious work on opera. But that's a whole different story.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 28, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  opera  
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