Along the Roaring River

That was late in life to set out on the
career that has nonetheless taken him from Mao to the Met ó and beyond, but
thatís only one feature that makes Along the Roaring River, the
singerís account of his life, a fascinating book.

During his first American decade Tian sang a variety of supporting roles
with Denverís Opera Colorado. In 1988 he attracted a larger audience in an
Aspen Wild-West staging of Verdiís Falstaff that ó prophetically
ó featured an almost all-Asian cast. He made his Met debut opposite Luciano
Pavarotti in Verdiís Lombardi 1993.

He was ó among his many ìfirstsî ó the first Chinese to sing Verdi
in Italy and to appear in Beethovenís Fidelio in Germany. (The
problems that he encountered at the hands of make-up crews account for
lighter moments in his story.) It has also been a career that took took Tian
home to China and then made him a major figure in introducing new Chinese
opera to this country. In 2006 he sang the premiere of Tan Dunís First
at the Met and two years later he was on stage in Central City
as the Poet Li Bai in Guo Wenjingës account of the eighth-century

In Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met,
Tian, born in Beijing in 1954, tells of more than his life in opera, and that
makes the book, written with the able aid of Lois B. Morris, a document of
its time. Tian labels his Chinese roots ìrevolutionary military,î for his
parents had been underground Communists back in the days when Chiang Kai-shek
led the Chinese against the Japanese invasion that was a major chapter of
World War Two. But his early life of privilege ó better food, better
clothing, better housing ó did not last. With Maoís Cultural Revolution
of the 60ís, even this background was no insurance against suspicion. His
parents were exiled from Beijing, and Tian went to work in the cityís
boiler works, today a Chinese-American joint venture. Nonetheless he learned
guitar and accordion and slowly built a second career in music while banging
out boilers. Yet he had loathed early piano lessons and recalls the pleasure
that he took in smashing the familyís records of Western music that were
anathema to the ears of the ìnewî China. Thus the book is also a
sorrowful report on a tragic chapter of history that witnessed, for example,
the death of millions of Chinese through the mismanagement of Mao and his

These horrors are offset by the love story that is a further dimension of
this report: Tianís happy ó and fortuitous ó marriage to London-born
Martha Liao, who left a major career in genetics to serve as producer,
manager, gourmet cook and all around genius in helping the singer achieve the
fame that he now enjoys. High on the list of Liaoís successes is the
founding of Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, the organization that made
Poet Li Bai possible.

In the most poignant moment in the book Tian recalls a day when Met
rehearsals for Emperor were going badly. Everyone was tired and
tensions were running high. At the piano Tian began playing songs from the
Cultural Revolution. The Chinese colleagues from that era joined in, and the
defeatist mood was broken. ìStrange to say, for some of us there was magic
under Chairman Mao,î Tian writes. ìThe creative fire was lit and fed in
an environment that was inhospitable to anything but the party line. We had
nothing. There was nothing to have. What was there was ours, a simple song in
the mountains, a couple of stuffed dumplings, a glass of beer, a line of
poetry, a back and forth about literatureÖ. ìHow bizarre that I was
rediscovering it all again among my Chinese Cultural Revolution peers in this
bastion of high Western culture in twenty-first century America.î

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross provides a significant
supplement to Tianís book in his article ìSymphony of Millions,î an
account of musical life in China today, in the July 7 issue of that magazine.
He tells of visiting Tian and Martha at their Beijing home and offers
insights into Poet LiBai with ó alas ó no mention of the role of
the Central City Opera in staging the work.

On September 13 Hao Jiang Tian sings Chang the Coffin Maker in the world
premiere of Stewart Wallaceís Bonesetterís Daughter at the San
Francisco Opera. Amy Tan has written the libretto after her novel of the same

Wes Blomster

image_description=Along the Roaring River
product_title=Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met
product_by=Hao Jiang Tian, Robert Lipsyte (Foreword by) with Lois B. Morris
John Wiley & Sons, 2008
product_id=ISBN: 978-0-470-05641-7