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VOCAL VIRTUOSO. Several Portland Opera performances this season include baritone André Chiang. Pictured are Chiang (right) as Prince Yamadori and Jon Kolbet as Goro in Madame Butterfly. (Photo/Cory Weaver, courtesy of the Portland Opera)
From The Asian Reporter, #04 (February 20, 2012), page 13.
 

Proud to shatter your stereotypes: Portland Opera studio artist André Chiang

By Josephine Bridges | The Asian Reporter

What images do the words "opera singer" call to your mind? A loud, flashy, self-absorbed entertainer? A giant woman with a helmet and a spear? A cartoon character everyone is trying to convince to shut up? That’s what baritone André Chiang, who did not spend his childhood dreaming of becoming an opera singer, used to think. "I was not the biggest opera fan when I was young," the Portland Opera studio artist admits.

So what happened? It all started in Singapore, where Chiang’s parents were married before moving to Mobile, Alabama, where their son was born.

"There was a strong music emphasis at my church," Chiang explains. Spring Hill Baptist Church, which sponsored his parents’ move to Mobile, had "youth choirs from kindergarten to high school," and it was there, as a chorister, that he began to realize he would be pursuing vocal music.

It didn’t hurt matters that in high school, "the pretty girls were in chorus, and they liked my voice and invited me. I was not a ladies’ man. I wanted a date."

Voice lessons followed, then participation in all-state choruses, then solo evaluations. "It was all free," Chiang notes. "Why not?"

But it wasn’t all easy. The Italian that most opera is written in "befuddled me," says Chiang. "It was like a walled-off garden." Yet as he began to sing arias for solo evaluations, he listened to opera over and over and found that "something about it was interesting. Having no idea what the words meant, I could tell what was happening. It’s like watching a drama, or even a horror movie. You know when it’s going to get crazy."

It’s at this point that André Chiang begins to wax rhapsodic about his art form, using Portland Opera’s current season as an example of the progression of opera itself.

"Le Nozze de Figaro is symmetrical," he explains. "Things happen exactly when they should happen. It makes sense." Although Mozart wrote it 300 years ago, it is still relevant, focusing as it does on "what makes people tick, and what ticks people off." Puccini never went to Japan, yet in his great work Madame Butterfly, "he managed to depict America’s first foray into Japan," while also showing "the power of the human spirit" through Butterfly’s misguided belief and her dignity in spite of it.

Contemporary composer Philip Glass retells Galileo’s life "in a backwards fashion" in Galileo Galilei. "Galileo’s father was a famous opera composer," Chiang lets us know. "It’s not horribly disjunct; everything has a nice sway. Like a lot of the music I sing, it sounds intellectual, highbrow, like the background music to a really good lecture."

As for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, he explains, "I don’t think it has a definitive version. Sections can be cut and different productions rarely do the same dialogue. It’s hodgepodge, jumping around, with people coming back from the dead. It’s really hard to sing."

With a Master of Music from Manhattan School of Music and more than a dozen operas to his credit, Chiang is a participant in the Portland Opera Studio Artist (POSA) program, which comprises nine months of rigorous training in voice, language, and movement; recitals; and supporting roles in Portland Opera productions.

Says Clare Burovac, Portland Opera’s director of artistic administration, who oversees the POSA program, "André is an extremely musical artist with a lovely voice, and he’s driven to succeed and works very hard to improve. We all believe that he has great potential for a career as an opera singer. To then find out he’s so much fun and a crazy sports fanatic just makes him that much more accessible."

Chiang was a soloist at the Portland Opera’s 2011 "Big Night Concert" and earlier this month performed in Madame Butterfly. If you have not yet seen him perform, look for him in Galileo Galilei and Candide. He also dreams of singing the national anthem at a Portland Trail Blazer game. Keep your ears open.

Asked what he really wants readers of The Asian Reporter to know, Chiang returned to the theme of stereotypes. "Opera singers are normal people who just happen to choose this old art form as an expression of themselves," he points out. "Opera singers come from everywhere, and they are all sorts of people: football players, farmers. You could be talking to someone and they could be an opera singer."

Five performances of Galileo Galilei take place between March 30 and April 7. Candide opens May 11 and closes May 19. To learn more, or to buy tickets, call (503) 241-1802 or visit <www.portlandopera.org>.


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