BEIJING, Jan. 24, 2024 /PRNewswire/ -- Listening to his Chinese songs, you will be captivated by his pure and emotionally charged voice that connects you with history and culture. His rendition of world-class operas, his clear enunciation, character portrayal and interpretation will also leave audiences applauding with excitement.
This is Liao Changyong, Asia's premier baritone. A dignified artist gracing the stage, he is China's revered "national treasure," a maestro whose life has unfolded as a harmonious composition, blending the notes of personal triumph with the crescendo of musical mastery.
This is the fifth issue of our Cultural Influencer series.
In mid-January, only a few weeks ahead of the Year of the Dragon, distinguished operatic baritone Liao Changyong showcased his unique and enchanting voice, captivating the audience at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
"No one can dislike him; his songs are too beautiful," an elderly couple in the audience told the Global Times.
Liao possesses a voice that transcends mere melody, unfolding like a tapestry of velvet tones. Each note is a masterstroke of emotive precision, weaving a narrative of passion and depth.
Boasting many honorable titles, including world-renowned vocal artist, president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, Liao remains committed to rigorous self-discipline, never straying far from the stage.
"When starting out as an artist, do not deceive foreign audiences by singing Chinese pieces abroad or vice versa. Excel in performing foreign compositions overseas, earning recognition from your international peers, and showcasing the achievements of Chinese music education to the world," he noted.
"Building on this foundation, one can go abroad to deliver outstanding performances of Chinese works, amplifying the authentic voice of China and narrating compelling Chinese stories, and meanwhile, proficiently interpret foreign compositions in China," he said.
These words, once spoken by his mentor Zhou Xiaoyan, have always served as a guiding force propelling him to consistently strive forward, Liao told the Global Times at the very beginning of this exclusive interview.
Liao, adorned with awards such as first prize at the International Singing Competition of Toulouse and the top spot in the Operalia, one of the most prestigious opera competitions in the world, has had an illustrious career.
It's hard to believe that, before entering university, he had no foundation in vocal music. He secured admission to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music through short intense preparation and his inherent talent. While perceived as a "prodigy" by outsiders, he attributes his success to the gratitude he felt to be given these opportunities.
Liao was born in 1968 in a rustic village in Chengdu, capital city of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. Fate, however, played a discordant note early on when his father's untimely passing left the family grappling with an unexpected burden. Yet, Liao, the youngest of four siblings, remained undeterred. His mother, a resilient figure, single-handedly steered the family through the storm.
It was during these challenging times that Liao's love for music blossomed. In the eyes of his family, pursuing music seemed an impractical dream, but their encouragement paved the way for the emergence of an extraordinary musician.
Encouragement came from unexpected quarters when his high school teacher introduced him to vocal training with Zhou Weimin, a teacher at a theater in Sichuan Province. This marked Liao's first formal singing lesson. It was a journey he undertook on a bicycle, pedaling for over an hour from home to class every day.
In September 1988, the young man became the only student admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music among over 100 candidates from Chengdu and its surrounding areas.
In the first semester of his freshman year, Liao ranked last in his class in professional courses, but by the second semester, he had climbed to the top. Behind this achievement lay untold hardships, known only to him. He transformed himself from a novice who couldn't read sheet music into a virtuoso who would later captivate audiences on the grandest of stages.
"'A minute on stage requires 10 years off stage.' You must endure loneliness. In the practice room, I would spend two or three hours internalizing my repertoire, and this work was incredibly tedious," Liao said, reflecting on the arduous journey.
Liao is also a man who sticks to his aspiration. In 1998, amid the 20th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up, with the country's economy taking flight, Liao, already holding three prestigious international awards, received tempting offers from renowned foreign artistic groups extending generous terms, including the Metropolitan Opera in the US.
However, on every occasion, he declined.
Later, the conservatory recommended him for further studies abroad, providing an opportunity to learn under the tutelage of the international maestro Placido Domingo. Upon completion, he chose to return home.
"The Shanghai Conservatory of Music has shaped my journey... I want to stay and cultivate more musicians."
Two decades later, the young artist emerged as a driving force behind China's cultural expansion onto the global stage.
For a significant period, Liao embarked on monthly performances in Europe and the Americas. Simultaneously performing, he extended invitations on behalf of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to those artists who had "drifted away" overseas, successfully persuading some to return.
The return of exceptional artists is steering China's musical culture toward a path of international dissemination.
"Many foreign people lack an understanding of Chinese culture simply because no one has offered them an immersive experience or informed them, while we have the capability to change that," Liao said.
"The Chinese music that people abroad genuinely appreciate should be inseparable from China's outstanding traditional culture," Liao told the Global Times.
The fusion of music with China's traditional fine culture will also become a shared treasure for humanity, and Chinese people should cherish and promote it, Liao said.
In recent years, Liao has successfully organized several concerts themed "Chinese art songs in 100 years," showcasing Chinese art songs from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as contemporary pieces. These concerts pioneered the integration of classical art songs, combining music, poetry, calligraphy, and painting to expand the expressive potential of Chinese art songs.
Art songs, originating in Europe, seamlessly blend music with poetry and other art forms, displaying profound cultural heritage and creating a beautiful artistic atmosphere. Chinese art songs, with a unique fusion of Western musical elements and Chinese cultural artistry, express traditional Chinese aesthetics and artistic connotations through rich musical techniques.
Earlier initiatives in the overseas exchange of art songs, such as the promotion of Chinese art songs at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva and an exclusive New Year's music concert held in Vienna during the Chinese New Year, have garnered considerable attention worldwide.
According to Liao, he is currently engaged in compiling and researching a systematic history of Chinese art songs spanning from the 1920s to the present. The initial part covering the years 1920 to 1949 has already been completed, with plans to begin work after the year of 1949 in 2024.
He hopes that through Chinese art songs, more international friends will develop an appreciation for Chinese poetry, classical culture, and that the repertoire of foreign musicians will also include works from China.
Indeed, China's history, unbroken for over 5,000 years, should be nurtured carefully, with a particular emphasis on preserving its exceptional traditional culture. Among the various mediums available, Chinese art songs have emerged as the most apt carriers for upholding poetic and literary legacies. Art songs, characterized by their profound literary and musical qualities, harmoniously fuse international and Chinese musical languages, representing a delightful convergence of the two. This, undoubtedly, is a splendid endeavor for the enrichment of our cultural tapestry, Liao noted.
In 2023, Liao, serving as general director and artistic director, brought the original opera Kangding Qingge or Kangding Love Song, a traditional folk song of Kangding from Sichuan Province, to various cities nationwide. He aimed to refine the opera during the tour, molding it into a masterpiece akin to Butterfly Lovers, a classic Chinese legend. His plan includes promoting the work internationally, allowing the world to understand Chinese people's yearning for peace and a fruitful life.
From a rural beginning to international stages, every step of Liao's journey has been incredibly challenging. His story makes him one of the most fitting spokespersons for the determined spirit of the Chinese people, unafraid of hardships and willing to strive for their dreams.
Liao advises young people to study through imitation but also think critically. "Both talent and effort are crucial. Some talents may not be exceptional, but through dedicated hard work, gradually forming habits and accumulating bit by bit, a qualitative leap is achieved."
Audiences need patience with young artists, but young artists need determination. They should learn from the experiences of predecessors while observing life, externalizing actions, internalizing thoughts, and transforming imitation into spontaneity. This process is tedious and challenging, requiring unwavering determination, he added.
As an artist, maintaining a spirit of exploration is crucial. While staying true to oneself, it's essential to explore and experience different things to enrich one's artistic expression. Learning music should not be about becoming a music technician but should involve experiencing various art forms and mutual learning and inspiration.
Liao recalls facing criticism for participating in some pop musical programs as a president of a conservatory of music. However, he views it as a mutual learning process, emphasizing the collision between pop and classical music.
He encourages young people to maintain their enthusiasm for creation, urging older musicians to summarize their experiences and welcome a peak of the national cultural industry.
Noting the strong support for the cultural industry's development since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, Liao said that the current environment for artistic creation is the best it has ever been.
"With over 130 operas created annually, the emphasis is now on high-quality development. Encouraging vibrant growth is essential, but the pursuit of excellence is paramount to reaching the pinnacle of Chinese music," he said.