The earliest classical opera concerts were free. Even so, Martha Liao had to resort to gimmicks to attract an audience when she founded the Asian Performing Arts of Colorado 20 years ago to promote Chinese classical singers. 'I even cooked Chinese food for them,' says Liao, then an assistant professor in the University of Colorado's medical school. 'Americans just didn't believe Chinese people could sing aria.' How times have changed. Last month, when Poet Li Bai, an opera written and performed by Chinese artists, had its world premiere at the Central City Opera in Colorado, Liao had to buy tickets in advance for her friends and family. 'I was worried there wouldn't be any left if they weren't quick enough,' she says. It turned out to be a smart move: the show at the 550-seat opera house in Central City, a town nestled in the mountains, was sold out. Opera fans flew in from around the country although few had heard of the poet the work is based on. Poet Li Bai is just one of several operas written and produced by Chinese artists that have recently caught the attention of American classical music lovers. In New Mexico, the Santa Fe Opera staged the US premiere of Tea: A Mirror of Soul, a 2002 work by composer Tan Dun, with performances running through to the end of the month. Last December, the Metropolitan Opera in New York held the premiere of The First Emperor, a Tan composition based on emperor Qin Shi Huang. Directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, it became the most important opera event of the year in the US and all nine performances at the 3,800-seat house quickly sold out. The opera will be restaged at the Met next year. The invasion is expected to continue. Next year, the San Francisco Opera is scheduled to host the world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter, based on Chinese-American writer Amy Tan's novel, with music by composer Stewart Wallace and Chen Shizheng as director. In a preview of Poet Li Bai, Denver Post critic Kyle MacMillan ascribes the interest to a happy convergence, 'a pivotal moment when the surging Chinese classical music scene is asserting itself internationally and the west seems hungry for the creative reinvigoration that can blossom from the cross-fertilisation of these two ancient cultures'. Part of this surge is coincidental. For example, Tan was asked to create The First Emperor 10 years ago - the first time the Met had contracted a work by someone from Asia. 'It was quite adventurous,' says Sarah Billinghurst, the Met's assistant manager for artistic production. 'The fact [Tan] was from Asia was a secondary thing. We commissioned him for his music ability.' However, other currents have combined to swell the wave, including a driving need to cultivate a younger audience for classical music. Concert attendances have been slipping since the 1990s and orchestras are struggling to woo a generation that has grown up with iPod and YouTube. At the same time, US opera houses are desperate for new ideas after having adapted European works for decades. Inventiveness is now a major criterion in their choice of productions. Take the 75-year-old Central City Opera. Led by director Pat Pearce, the company has brought in many 'risky' productions over the past decade including Poet Li Bai, which is sung in Putonghua. 'A large percentage of our budget has to be raised. I believe our donors - corporations and individuals - are much more interested in doing something unique and different than in funding a new production of Carmen,' says Pearce. 'So while it seems risky to do these works, from the economic standpoint it's the only way we can survive.' Chinese talents fit the bill. Since the 1990s, Chinese musicians have been filling seats in symphonies and orchestras in the US. Singers such as bass Tian Haojiang, soprano Ying Huang and baritone Fu Haijing have started to attract attention; the rapid rise of young stars such as pianist Lang Lang adds to the allure. At the same time, the so-called new China wave of composers who went to the US for further studies after the Cultural Revolution have matured, and works such as Nine Songs (Tan Dun, 1989), and Madam Mao (Bright Sheng, 2003) have helped pave the way for younger talents from the mainland. 'There's definitely more interest in musicians from China, especially when they work both in China and here,' says Billinghurst. It helps that many mainland musicians and composers have been better at retaining distinctive cultural characteristics than other Asian musicians who have carved careers in the US. 'The wave of composers from Asia before the Chinese were Japanese but there was nothing inherently Asian about their music. The sounds were absolutely European experimental avant garde,' says Ken Smith, a critic for professional music publications such as Gramophone. 'The Chinese aren't necessarily like that. If you have a Chinese composer that [work] is probably going to sound Chinese.' Most compositions by the new China wave feature Chinese elements, from using instruments such as the pipa and the qin to incorporating melodies and singing styles drawn from Peking opera and Chinese folk music. Such influences also have an impact on western-style works. 'There were a lot of Chinese elements in The First Emperor, which really added to the flavour of the production. The audiences loved it,' says Billinghurst. Similarly, Pearce says the Chinese elements are a factor behind the success of Poet Li Bai at the Central City Opera. The production has all the features of classical opera, from the vocal techniques to an orchestra in the pit, but it also introduces distinctively Chinese sounds by using the bamboo flute and the Peking tenor. 'It's the uniqueness and freshness that attracts a younger audience.' Despite the accolades, some worry the mainland composers' emphasis on incorporating Chinese elements into their work may hamper their development in the long term. Chou Wenchung, the Shandong-born director of the Centre for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, describes the practice as a form of westernisation. 'You take simplified symbols from your culture and put it in your music because you know that's the expectation of westerners,' he says. One of the first Asian composers to gain recognition in the west, Chou, 84, sees similarities between his experiences and those of the younger mainland composers, many of whom he helped bring to the US. 'When my symphonies started to be played in the major music halls here, a concert promoter asked me: 'You're a Chinese composer; why don't you do something unique like smash a cymbal on the ground?' That was half a century ago. And now it seems everybody's doing things like that,' he says. 'But should an opera composed by a Chinese distinguish itself only by adding Peking opera in the overture?' During rehearsals for Poet Li Bai, which will be performed in Beijing and Shanghai in October, director Lin Zhaohua and bass Tian, who sings the title character, held many discussions about how a Chinese work should be different from western productions. 'I don't want him to just open his mouth, extend his arms and sing it in the way a western opera singer would,' says Lin. 'I want it to sound like Chinese singing.' It was a challenge for Tian, who's trained to sing in Italian, French and English. 'I feel the muscles in my throat and mouth were asking me a lot of questions for every syllable.' But he concedes that 'it's best to tell a story of a certain culture with the original language'. To the opera's composer Guo Wenjing, Chinese symbols are sometimes useful for Chinese artists. 'People often ask why you always present dragons, pavilions and Peking opera, where is your modern artistry? But these symbols often enable the work to be accepted more easily by a diverse audience.'