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Café Concert: Shenyang

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VIDEO: Shenyang performs Chinese Art Songs

To see Shenyang in a large opera house, you might not guess that he's capable of delivering delicate art songs with subtle expressions. After all, he is a burly six-foot-four-inches tall and possesses a booming bass-baritone that has brought him success in roles like Colline in La Bohème and Masetto in Don Giovanni. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the latter role in April 2009, and will return to the big house in February for a reprise of the Mozart/Da Ponte classic.

Yet there is another side to Shenyang’s artistry. He has begun championing Chinese art songs, short pieces that date to the beginning of the 20th century when that country’s composers had begun to study in Western music conservatories. In the WQXR Café, Shenyang sang three songs by Huang Zi (1904-1938), a Yale-trained composer whose art songs are full of direct, lyrical melodies and yet express the inflections of the Chinese language.

Born Shen Yang in 1984, the son of a law professor and a director of a performing-arts group, he started singing at a music high school in his native Tianjin, in eastern China. A stint at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music followed, and Shenyang was soon performing at vocal competitions in Europe.

In 2007, Shenyang took a master class with soprano Renée Fleming, who was impressed with what she heard. She arranged vocal coaching for him that spring at the Metropolitan Opera and he went on to win the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition (beating 24 other singers in the competition from a pool of nearly 700 who auditioned).

Around this time, an arts promoter suggested that the singer combine his name to a single word in order to make it easier for Westerners to remember. He soon got professional management, though he first enrolled in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the artist diploma program at Juilliard. The latter almost didn’t happen: Shenyang is a big admirer of German lieder (particularly the recordings of the late Hans Hotter) and he considered traveling to Germany to study.

Today, however, Shenyang is based in New York, where he is known to have built a collection of CDs that numbers in the thousands. “Recordings are like my second teacher,” he said. “When I was young I listened to Herbert von Karajan and Michael Jackson at the same time. They’re the same.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise

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