Gong Dongjian has sung for royalty, been received by the Pope and delighted opera fans around the world in some 50 bass roles from the European classic repertoire. Yet the native of Jiangxi province may ultimately be remembered for his pioneering role in a significant new art form: contemporary Chinese opera, a genre born of the imaginative stage works from a new generation of mainland-born composers who include Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, Zhou Long, Cong Su and Qu Xiaosong.
A tally of the premieres and follow-up performances of these works finds Gong's name repeatedly turning up in the credits. What sets him apart from his contemporaries is his commitment to modern works; he cites Qu Xiaosong's Life on a String (1998) as his favourite. As a 75-minute work featuring a lone character singing in Chinese without surtitle translations, it was an unlikely hit with Western audiences.
'The work was written totally in the Sichuan dialect,' Gong says. 'As a storyteller, I played seven characters in all the different voice registers, from soprano to bass.'
The work ran successfully in Brussels, Lisbon, Edinburgh, Munich, Paris and Amsterdam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gong recalls that he received even better reviews than the composer.
But things don't always go so smoothly with new works that synthesise different cultures. Gong played the part of Abbot Fahai in Zhou Long's Madame White Snake (2010), which was commissioned and premiered by Opera Boston in February, transferring to the Beijing Music Festival last month with a change of orchestra, chorus, conductor and production, and only a week to get its act together.
Difficulties arose. 'The first was with the rehearsal pianist,' Gong says. 'We don't have this kind of pianist in China. All the music schools are trying to get everybody to become Lang Lang. The pianists have a fantastic technique and musicianship, but they don't know how to look at the conductor, how to co-operate with the performers. Initially, it was nearly impossible to sing it right through.'
Despite such challenges, Gong is committed to Chinese opera's new wave. He is very much like his composer collaborators, who were all born in the 1950s; all studied at mainland conservatories and their reumes are all linked by the Cultural Revolution, a dark period for Western music on the mainland.
However, it an era of which the 54-year-old singer has positive memories. 'The revolution was in some way beneficial for me,' he says. 'It made me become a performer.'
Gong is in town for a solo song recital at City Hall next Monday, an unusual move as opera stars are invariably cautious about exploring the vast but intimate world of art songs alone because it demands a new range of performance skills.
He has waited 25 years to turn this corner and is excited at the prospect, coming as it does at the end of a journey full of other unlikely turns.
During the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), propagandist performance groups were exempt from toiling in factories so, having first failed to distinguish himself as a dancer, Gong picked up a trumpet and made the best of his self-taught sounds.
It was the quality of his voice, however, that gradually turned heads and found him his true milieu in those political outdoor performances.
'That's where I got my first stage experience, learning how to sing in front of other people,' Gong says. 'My schooling started on the street.' The young singer was soon recognised at provincial level before being chosen by the army to do vocal combat for them at national level. But even in his early 20s, he remained untutored.
'At that time I couldn't even read music. I could see everyone in the orchestra accompanying me reading the music, but I was the soloist and I couldn't do it. I felt a little bit ashamed, so I asked if I could go to school.'
His wish granted, Gong attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1980, transferring to the National Opera House in Beijing four years later, where his appetite for Western opera was whetted by a disappointingly small number of productions.
Still unable to speak a word of English, some judicious talent-spotting by visiting American academics during the post-revolution thaw enabled Gong to consolidate his vocal coaching in the US, eventually bagging a generous scholarship to attend Indiana University in Bloomington. The rest might have turned out to be a conventional history, auditioning for operatic roles and appearing in some of the world's more distinguished theatres and festivals. Indeed, that's how the bass singer made his acquaintance with Opera Hong Kong, when the company invited him to sing in their 2005 production of Puccini's Turandot, the first of several appearances Gong has made with them.
The singer's first visit to Hong Kong was in 1997 for a production of Tan Dun's Marco Polo in the Arts Festival; he was back two years later to appear in another festival opera, Guo Wenjing's Night Banquet, during which he had to strip off his clothes as a show of contempt for the corrupt administration his character had to endure.
'I kept my underwear on,' Gong quips. 'It's not pretty there.'
He'll return next year in a new commission from Opera Hong Kong to mark the 100th anniversary of Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary deeds. Song of the Sun is being written by Huang Ruo, a young mainland composer living in New York, and it's to be sung in Chinese; Sun will be played by Warren Mok, the company's artistic director, while Gong will take the part of Charlie Soong, Sun's father-in-law. 'I've been Warren's father so many times,' Gong sighs. 'In Turandot, Aida, Don Carlos and Tan Dun's Tea during a 2006 performance in New Zealand.'
For now, however, his focus is on next week's solo recital. The programme includes three of the earliest Chinese art songs written in the 1920s (How can I not think of him, On the Jialing river and Great river flows eastward), plus his 'lucky' Rachmaninov that helped bring him success at international competitions in his early career.
But it's the prospect of performing Brahms' Four Serious Songs that has most significance for him, having first heard them at a masterclass in his youth.
'I said to myself: One day I will have to do them. But at the time I didn't have a good enough technique,' Gong says.
'I'm excited. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to transfer myself to the concert repertoire; I've spent a year preparing to make the changes in [vocal] colour to match the changing emotions in the songs. It's sometimes more interesting than singing opera.'
Gong Dongjian Recital, Dec 6, 8pm. City Hall Concert Hall. Tickets: HK$100 to HK$350. Inquiries: 2234 0303