Brothers united on stage
Published: May 21, 2012 07:15 PM Updated: May 22, 2012 10:38 AM
poster for Sing Brother Sing
poster for Sing Brother Sing
Scene from Poet Li Bai
Scene from Poet Li Bai

Though it's been years since his brother passed away, Tian Haojiang never gave up on the idea of staging the story of their final, tearful conversation. The revered singer's dream has materialized, and Tian will debut his story in a one-man show this Friday night at Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts. 

In the Western opera world, 58-year-old Tian Haojiang is one of the few internationally renowned Chinese singers whose bass voice has filled opera houses for over 20 years. His brother, an employee at a local Beijing hospital, has never stepped foot on stage.

"You wouldn't notice him among thousands of Beijingers. But I want to put his story on the stage for that reason; people rarely pay attention to ordinary life, the daily pleasures, and sorrows," Tian, director and star of his new show, Sing Brother Sing, told the Global Times.

The last conversation

Tian received notice that his brother, older than him by eight years, was gravely ill as he was performing La Boheme at the Metroplitan Opera House in New York over 10 years ago. Tian flew back to Beijing to see his brother during the three days between the two performances.

At the hospital room, the two brothers shared their last three-hour-long conversation, where they chatted away and sang songs from their childhood. 

"Upon seeing me, he smiled and simply said, 'you are back!'" Tian recalled.

Born into a military musician's family, Tian and his brother shared a rocky childhood but went on separate paths after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Junior Tian, who showed interest in music since childhood, got the chance to pursue music education in the US, in 1983. The chance to study abroad changed his life. With great effort, he received the opportunity to perform at Western opera houses.

Meanwhile, the brother found an ordinary job as a staff member at a local hospital, making enough just to get by.

But Tian's life has been filled with bumps. Like other Chinese artists during the Cultural Revolution, Tian was forced to work in a local boiler factory as a teenager for six years.

"All my experiences - all the ups and downs during that period - had an effect on my career, enriching the way I perform. [Only] utilizing acting skills learned at the academy will make your acting bland and impassioned anyway," Tian said, recalling his experience at the factory.

"Without the Cultural Revolution, China wouldn't have directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige or writers like Chen Danqing, just to name a few."

When Tian was a baby, his cries were so loud and clear that his brother joked, "he will be a singer when growing up."

"My brother was right. I fell in love with singing and performing. I didn't know that he also had a dream of becoming a singer until that conversation," Tian recalled. "But he accepted his fate. He was happy and content."

Transition to stage

After Tian moved to New York, he visited Beijing occasionally, but reserved only an hour or two for his brother.

"At that time, I always had someone important to see, so we only had a few hours to have dinners or catch up. We had separate circles. Each meeting was like routine work."

Except for the last meeting, where each minute counted. The brothers sang childhood songs, conjuring nostalgic memories. 

In his last meeting, Tian discovered for the first time that his brother was also passionate about music; his brother learned of the hardships Tian faced behind the stage. After sharing details of their life with each other, Tian was moved. One week after their conversation, his brother passed away.

"I decided to act it out. Many friends knew my story and persuaded me to perform it. I wanted to share this experience," he said.

Tian admitted that he had many reservations about this show. "I questioned what it would bring to me and the audiences. But there are no answers. I don't expect to gain much fame from it, but I just want to share it with people."

One-man show

"With a giant projection of sand paintings as the background, Tian, the only actor on the stage, sometimes narrates and sometimes sings. The songs were nostalgic songs of my age," an audience member surnamed Ding wrote on his blog, after being invited to see the trial performance in 2009.

Tian prefers to call his production a one-man show instead of defining it as a drama, theater play or opera. Tian plays both himself and his brother. 

"The stage has a magic that offers an actor thinking space. You need to [occupy] this space. I prefer to just perform it individually," said Tian, who also considers changes for subsequent performances depending on the feedback.

This is not the first time that Tian staged an independent show. He performed From Mao to the Met, at the Met, a narrative of his own legendary life story.

When asked what he would pursue if he had never gone abroad, Tian said, "I would have become a pop singer. Or an actor. If that happens, then you wouldn't see Chen Daoming (a Chinese actor) or Cui Jian," he joked.

Tian's production team features an impressive lineup, with German stage designer Alexander Polzin, Hong Kong screenwriter Liao Duanli and acting consultant Sommer Ulrickson from the United States.

After premiering in Beijing from May 25-27 and touring in Shanghai June 5-6, the show will go international.