Baritone teaches students how to improve Western opera in China
Brian Montgomery has spent 10 years improving the quality of Western opera in China. It's getting better all the time, he tells Sam Olluver
When the mainland's decade-long Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, American violinist Isaac Stern was invited to reopen cultural channels between East and West. He advised Chinese orchestral musicians on Western classics and inspired students to lift their game in terms of their musical expression.
It didn't take long for mainland composers to follow the flow, with their East-West fusion of musical styles.
Amid all of this high-profile exchange, an American baritone was quietly starting to make his own transition across the globe. Brian Montgomery had escaped an early lack of musical direction in his hometown of Burien near Seattle and was heading east to New York.
There, in 1992, he made his debut appearance at one of the most prestigious musical establishments in the world: New York's Metropolitan Opera (the Met). Little did he know that he was destined to end up much farther east than anticipated.
The 57-year-old opera singer arrived on our shore a decade ago and spent five years teaching at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA).
He is still based in Hong Kong and has committed to a broader mission in the region by riding the mainland's burgeoning interest in Western opera.
In December last year, he directed, produced and sang in a semi-staged production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at Guizhou Normal University in Guiyang province. Next week, he will start preparing for a performance of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at Beijing University, where he will coach the students in stage movement before singing alongside them.
Then in May, he'll appear in a professional performance of Giordano's Andrea Chénier in Shanghai, the first production of the work on the mainland, before singing in a new production called Soong Ching-ling the following month.
The new production is not the first to be based on Dr Sun Yat-sen and his family. Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo's Dr Sun Yat-sen charts the life of the revolutionary but this Hong Kong Opera commission had its scheduled run at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing cancelled by the mainland authorities in 2011, and it ended up premiering in Hong Kong.
(Montgomery doesn't know the reason behind that decision but questions the music's distinctly avant-garde style. "Is that where you want to lead the Chinese public right now, with that type of edgy, modernistic music?" he says.)
Soong Ching-ling will premiere at the NCPA in June, and he will take the role of the American ambassador to the Kuomintang, singing in Putonghua.
The opera melds a Western-style score by Cheng Dazhao to a Chinese story.
Montgomery is confident that a similar axe won't fall "because it has been sponsored by the Guangzhou government; it's already on the schedule and approved".
Ahead of his next venture on the mainland, the baritone recalls his inauspicious start as a musician: piano lessons with his mother, followed by a few years learning violin that proved equally unproductive. He eventually found his niche in the school's music department.
"I'd always sung in church, so I joined the choir and found out that, at least, I was louder than anyone else. I seemed to have a knack for it. When I was 15, I did Pirates of Penzance, playing the Pirate King. I was hooked, and it was off to the races!"
But his horse soon pulled up short. After some formal voice tuition while completing secondary school, Montgomery put a hold on his passion.
"I lived in Bolivia for two years. I was a missionary with the Mormon Church," the singer says. "I directed a choir in Bolivia for a special worldwide meeting for church leaders but, other than that, I was just a missionary."
Returning home, aged 21, he picked up the musical threads by taking lessons with Bob Petersen, a resident artist with the Seattle Opera.
"We hit it off," Montgomery says. "He was clear as a bell on his teaching and I was able to grow from there."
He wanted to engage in Broadway musicals rather than opera, having been inspired by earlier experiences in shows such as South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof. But it wasn't to be, even though he immersed himself in musical theatre.
"I should have taken dancing lessons, but I never did. Frankly, I felt really stiff as an actor. The stage director said: 'Brian, you are just about the worst actor I have ever seen.' And he may have been right."
But this didn't stop the stage-struck youngster throwing his heart and soul into preparing for the roles. "It was very painful," he says. "But in the end, it really helped me a lot, going to the operatic stage after that."
But the pain didn't end there, as he discovered after being accepted into the Lyric Opera Centre for American Artists in Chicago in his late twenties. He had no bachelor's degree, and his fellow students were streets ahead in terms of experience.
"They had the credentials and, boy, they threw it around," Montgomery says. "They knew what they wanted and they were going to get what they wanted. I was almost run under the bus the first year, until I figured things out."
Following his Chicago training, Montgomery was standing taller and putting the first rungs of his career ladder into place, spending several years singing in Europe before returning to New York to relieve his wife's homesickness.
His manager arranged for him to audition at the Met, following which he was engaged as "the second banana" for several productions.
This involved learning a part, and attending paid rehearsals before sitting back and waiting for a phone call, in case the scheduled performer became indisposed.
Eventually that call came during a production of Verdi's Don Carlo and the 35-year-old Montgomery stepped on stage in the role of Rodrigo. Six months later, he appeared as Columbus in The Voyage by Philip Glass.
But 10 years on, times had changed. The economy was ailing; sponsorship for the arts was declining. Montgomery was now was 45, and opera houses were hiring younger, more cost-effective singers.
And so to Hong Kong. In 2004 Montgomery was appointed head of vocal studies at the APA as a result of "sheer dumb wonderful luck". A friend of his had applied for the post but found the remuneration insufficient and alerted Montgomery to the opening.
Since then, all his experience has been put at the service of China's youth, both here and on the mainland, emulating Isaac Stern's efforts 25 years earlier.
After a 20-year break, he will return to New York next year to appear in a production of Bizet's Carmen at the Met.
After that, he'll resume his efforts to help local hopefuls. So do the Chinese see Western opera as a social trapping, or are they serious about it?
"Students do have a fire in their hearts for opera," Montgomery says. "And they want to get out of China to learn more. They realise they cannot progress to the level they need to in the mainland system.
"It takes generations to produce home-grown singers. China is trying to do it in five years," he says.