Tenor Gao Liang has a beautiful voice. He has always had a beautiful voice, and from a very young age his singing received praise.
But when he spoke, adults gave pause, and his classmates laughed at him. For a long time, Liang couldn’t understand why. He thought he spoke like everyone else, and wasn’t aware of anything to laugh at.
Then one day, fate led Liang to an old tape recorder lying around the house, and when he played back a recording of himself, Liang was in for a shock. What he thought he sounded like and what he actually sounded like were completely different.
It turned out that Liang had a speech disorder. There was nothing physically or mentally wrong with him, but he was pronouncing most of his words incorrectly, Liang explained. With great persistence, Liang re-learned to speak from scratch, listening to others and mimicking their speech, and managed to undo a habit that he had worn like a glove the past 10 years, he said. Naturally, it left a deep impression on him.
Perhaps Liang was meant to sing, if he was able to conquer this mountain of an obstacle when many others retain similar speech disorders all their life, he explained.
“It felt like it was destiny,” he said. “It felt like my mission.”
That timid young boy with a speech disorder would grow up to become an internationally awarded classical vocalist, and that to Liang still feels like a miracle.
A Rising Star
His talent took him far. Liang’s beautiful singing voice got him cast in many a school production, which had him seeking out a vocal teacher to further his gift. He was introduced to the idea of music as a career, and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and then the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music.
During his studies, he had the opportunity to perform in seven international vocal competitions, and won five awards. Some put him on world-renowned stages, alongside top international vocalists.
At Russia’s Third International B.T. Shtokolov Vocal Competition in St. Petersburg, Liang was the only tenor to advance to the third round of finals. He’d performed alongside top European vocalists and Mariinsky Theatre stars, and received insightful feedback from competition jury members.
“These experiences are unforgettable. It was a state of maturing, a stage of affirmation that strengthened my confidence and allowed me to continue to improve,” Liang said.
Classical vocal competitions differ from other singing competitions, Liang pointed out. In most competitions, people sing different songs to draw on their strengths and originality in performance is emphasized. But in these long-running, classical competitions, vocalists are almost always asked to sing the same repertoire. The judging of technique is strict, and the vocalists’ proficiency in singing in multiple languages as well as their artistic interpretations are also up for critique.
The beauty of classical music led Liang to further his vocalist career as an opera singer in China and in Europe, and he starred as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Tamino in “The Magic Flute,” Rodolfo in “La Bohème,” and others. Then, in 2019, Liang left for the United States in the pursuit of new challenges.
“The reason the United States is great is because it has inherited and developed the best of the world’s traditions,” Liang said. Classical music was established and developed in Europe, but artists from around the world dream of debuting in America in order to claim international fame, for example. In Liang’s opinion, this comes from American institutions’ respect for culture and things of excellence.
“In fact, many, many things in China have been destroyed in China, and are gone from China, but they have been protected, inherited in America, and are being carried forward,” Liang said. “This is a very good thing, and the United States is really a very amazing country.”
Today, as a tenor with the New York-based company Shen Yun Performing Arts, Liang is one of the handful of artists in this age dedicated to preserving and reviving the fine art of bel canto.
But, didn’t always like bel canto.
Discovering Bel Canto
When Liang was young, he, like many his age, wanted to do what was trendy and popular—and bel canto certainly wasn’t trendy.
On top of that, growing up in China, Liang did not have a good impression of bel canto. He didn’t have exposure to European operas and the great vocal works of the classical canon, and this meant the only operatic singing he knew were songs meant to glorify the Chinese Communist Party. These propaganda pieces held little appeal for the artist; he felt they were tacky, and there was nothing attractive about them.
“For example, [Handel’s] ‘Messiah’—there’s no way you could perform that in China,” Liang said. When he furthered his studies, he was introduced to the world of opera, and his musical world was expanded.
“It’s a totally different art in European culture,” Liang said. The songs are elegant, and their content relevant to humanity. “They are poems, and [the works] sing the praises of friendship, love, and have nothing to do with politics.”
Bel canto is a difficult art to master, but with a new repertoire of meaningful masterpieces waiting for him, Liang was willing to put in the work.
“‘Bel canto’ means beautiful singing. It’s connected with opera; if there was no opera there would be no bel canto,” Liang explained. It wasn’t the style of singing used in 1600, when opera made its grand debut in music history, but over time vocal techniques developed to its peak around the 19th century, and that pinnacle of style is referred to as bel canto.
A New Challenge
Singing is an art that requires tremendous strength and skill—the vocalist seeks to bring to reality a sound that first exists only in their imagination, as all musicians do, except in this case the instrument is invisible and intangible to the musician, Liang said. In performance, it requires utter tranquility, a kind of mindfulness most only dream of, in order to produce perfection in every single sound.
Liang went to America in search for a challenge, and he found it when he successfully auditioned into Shen Yun, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company. While the world renowned company is known for reviving the art of classical Chinese dance, its programs include many musical components as well, including bel canto solo performances. Liang was soon to learn that Shen Yun set just as high a bar for its vocalists.
For one thing, Shen Yun’s original vocal works are written in Chinese. Opera singers know that not all languages are equal when set to music, and some present unique challenges when sung, especially in the bel canto style that demands every single word and syllable to be sung in the same timbre. The style itself has high requirements for beauty and purity of sound, but Liang had never encountered such adherence to this requirement until he entered Shen Yun.
“No one else, no where else did they ask for such perfection,” Liang said. He was in for a shock when he realized what rigorous training his artist colleagues kept up. For most singers, when they reach the point of their career that Liang did, they may still train, and may seek out vocal coaches if they are taking on a new role, but it is mostly to keep in good condition. It wasn’t the sort of deep study and hard work that Liang associated with one’s student days.
Yet, when he entered this new American company and saw the pure hearts with which his colleagues were pursuing artistic perfection—suddenly, it was like a long staircase opened up before him, showing him a new path forward, an infinite path of improvement. Liang was newly inspired.
Art is not mere craft, Liang said.
It requires persistence and perseverance, as any craft would, but it also requires a gift, Liang said, explaining his reason for gratitude in being able to dedicate his life to his art. Everyone is good at different things, and he is thankful to be blessed with talent in singing.
“One needs the gift, and a very sensitive perception,” Liang said. “This is why I said artists are people who feel close to God.”
“Art is about things that are higher than us. Art is an illusory thing and the artist has to be able to translate the profound in their art and communicate it to the audience,” he said. “It’s not something you can master in one lifetime.”
“Learning to be a vocalist is quite magical,” Liang said. Not only does one need to build strong fundamental skills, but there is an aspect of talent, which he sees as a gift, he said. “I was amazed by it. How could human beings make these kinds of sounds? … So I really had a passion for this career, that’s why I never stopped exploring this profession and wanted to go further.”
Reporting by Astrid Wang/ELITE Magazine.