HAO JIANG TIAN is sitting, crouched, on the stairs in the Cultural Centre. Every now and then, someone comes out and tells him he's needed on stage: they're rehearsing Verdi's Macbeth, which opens tomorrow and Tian is playing Banquo. So he goes inside, sings his scene - carefully conserving his wonderful bass voice for the real performances - and listens to advice on stage movements from director Lo King-man. It has been remarked before that the details of Tian's rise through the operatic ranks would, itself, make an excellent opera. As Banquo, he plays a man of action who becomes a silent ghost; as himself, Tian, who was born in Beijing in 1954, did it the other way round: he survived the historical ghosts of China's recent past and learned how to succeed through his voice. 'In Macbeth, everyone is under a burden,' he says, and taps his own shoulder. 'This is like the feeling of the Cultural Revolution. I'm so familiar with this feeling. I tried to get rid of it. I did a lot of weird things.' He stops, bent over the carpet, prodding away at its surface. Then he says, 'Perhaps I shouldn't say this but if the world is too peaceful ...' He hesitates, looks up. 'It was a tragedy but as an artist I gained a lot from the Cultural Revolution.' One day, Tian watched a man leap from a pagoda at the Summer Palace in Beijing. He watched the expression on the man's face just before his death. He believes he saw the man smile at his release from suffering. Years later, in 1995, in Germany, he played the Commendatore in Don Giovanni: at the moment of operatic death, he says, 'I used that little smile.' Not many opera singers can claim to have had a similar education - to witness, with glee, their music teacher being carted off to prison, to smash, with glee, the family's classical record collection, to be gleefully released from the rigours of a formal education. Tian was at the perfect age to live through a strange, inverted world of fantastic freedom and fantastic rigours. He learnt one sentence in English during his school career, such as it was, but that sentence (Long Live Chairman Mao!) had to be recited while he stood in strict linear formation with his fellow pupils, each clutching a plastic flower, as they greeted foreign visitors - just one of the bizarre chorus lines, in a bizarre production, featuring a cast of millions, which ran for a decade. 'I worked in a factory for six and a half years,' says Tian (it made generators to create electricity - interviewing Tian, one often feels that the lurking metaphors, which are crying out for a screenplay, are almost too perfect). 'My singer colleagues say, 'Oh Tian, what a waste, think how many arias you could have learned.' But it gave me experience. I saw someone jump from the pagoda. And during that period, everything was enlarged - hate, suspicion - but the happiness level could be high.' His parents - his father had founded an orchestra in Beijing, his mother was a composer - were taken to Wuhan for re-education. After a few months, they were ordered to work with the People's Liberation Army song-and-dance ensembles, which was a much luckier fate than might have been predicted, but meant they didn't return to Beijing for 10 years. Tian stayed behind with his older brother and younger sister. 'I was pretty wild. I shouldn't say this but you couldn't be gwai-seye. He traces the character, thoughtfully, on the carpet. 'It means being a good kid, doing everything your parents ask, go to bed at 9, get up at 7 ... no, you couldn't do that.' In that parentless twilight, where the state ruled everyone's lives, he yearned to do what was forbidden. And what was forbidden was reading western novels. He and his friends stole 200 banned books from a closed library - Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Jane Austen - and sat up at night devouring them. (That may sound a familiar scene but he says he has neither read, nor seen the film of, Dai Sijie's Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress in which the youthful protagonist also steals 19th-century western literature during the Cultural Revolution.) He started to take singing lessons, encouraged by a man who heard him yell for a friend in a street. Tian's speaking voice is remarkable - Porgy with rolling Beijing intonations - so it's easy to hear why others encouraged him, even if he scarcely knew what he was doing. When the Central Conservatory of Music reopened, he became a pupil and then joined the Central Philharmonic Society of China. In 1982, in Shanghai, he was introduced to a visiting genetic scientist, from an American research programme, called Martha Liao. The following year, Tian won a scholarship to the University of Denver and, in the United States, met Liao again. In 1991, the year of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, she became his wife (and is also, it so happens, the sister of Sarah Liao Sau-tung, our own Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works). She has since given up her job to accompany him in his travels around the world. His wife, droll and delightful, recalls that first meeting in Shanghai: 'It was refreshing, I remember light blue jeans with bellbottoms. I thought, 'Gosh, I haven't seen bellbottoms in China before.'' How has he changed? 'Since the bellbottoms? He was lost. He knew he had a good voice but I think he didn't know he wanted to be a singer. Now he's a dedicated singer who wants to do well himself and help others.' They both know how confidence-sapping the struggle can be. At one point, Tian sang Moon River and Danny Boy, among other unlikely ditties, in a Chinese restaurant in Denver just to keep going. 'He wanted to open a Chinese restaurant,' whispers Liao, in the back row of the Cultural Centre, while her husband is being stabbed on stage. 'I'm a good cook, and he showed me an empty store and said, 'Shall we open a restaurant?' I didn't say a word, I didn't want to hurt him. I, also, wasn't sure. You need the luck.' He found it. He has sung with Pavarotti, with Domingo, with Kanawa; in New York, Washington, Buenos Aires, Chicago and Tokyo. Hong Kong will hear his Banquo this week; New York will hear it, at the Metropolitan, next autumn. 'I listen to the professionals around him and they're always shocked by his voice,' says Liao. 'His voice is Italian, noble, a rare sound. They say he's a major talent. It's not because I love him that I say that, it's because I listen to what others say.' Verdi's Macbeth will be performed at the Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 25-29 September 25-29 at 7.30pm Tickets: $650, $500, $360, $240, $120.