The Chinese tenors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 1994, 12:00am

THE story of the 'discovery' of Chinese immigrant Hao Zhou singing Western opera as he washed the dishes in the kitchen of Melbourne's Arts Centre has become an Australian legend. Now a new legend is in the making and, with two opera-singing Chinese migrants, 32-year-old Changsha-born Hao is centre stage again.

Move over Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Here come the other three tenors: Hao Zhou, Beijing pop star William Xing, saved from cleaning supermarkets and launched on his Australian singing career by an anonymous good samaritan, and Xie Kun, who got his break when an Australian friend mistakenly thought she saw him on television, being beaten during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

When the three were plucked from the chorus of the Victorian State Opera (VSO) in 1992 to sing together at Melbourne's Asian Food Festival the tag 'The Three Tenors' was a marketing ploy - and a joke. But it stuck.

Now they're veterans of major concerts, including a 1993 Australia Day performance for 250,000 Sydney-siders at the city's Darling Harbor, and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for tens of thousands of delegates to last year's Rotary International conference.

The frustrations of relegation to the chorus after successful music careers in China have given way to a very full dance card: a 12-concert private national tour for a leading Australian company later this year and a concert for an OECD conference in November, for instance.

Invitations to perform in Hong Kong this year did not fit Hao's schedule - 'they almost hate me so I hope there is another opportunity for us to go so they will love me again,' he says as the others beam.

If that chance comes it will be Hong Kong's gain. The tenors' easy, powerful voices meld perfectly as they perform a repertoire ranging from grand opera to Broadway hits, Neapolitan airs and - guaranteed audience pleasers - a Chinese folk song or two. It's a spine tingling mix of three great voices, and by the time they reach their Waltzing Matilda finale there's rarely a dry eye in the house.

It's a reaction that delights an initially sceptical Hao: 'I didn't know if I wanted to do it, I don't want to copy someone else. I thought it was a bit daggy [stupid], people might laugh at me. But now we're confident about singing together.' 'Ladies cry,' says William. 'It's the first time in another country three Chinese boys are singing together like this. It's very exciting.

'I am very happy to be doing this - I got sick of singing in the chorus,' says Fujian-born William, 39, who gave up his lucrative Beijing career to move to Australia as a language student in 1990.

'When I first arrived here I just said, 'no. I want to go back'. Everything was so strange for me.

'It was very hard. I could not find a job because my English is not so good. Then the first time I found a job it was in a clothing factory and I have to iron the collars and get paid 10 cents each. It was very boring. The first day I did 200. The second day I worked 7am to 9pm and I made $70.' FOR William, who grew up surrounded by music on the island of Gulangyu, Fujian, and who travelled for eight years with the province's Song and Dance Troupe before going solo, it was a far cry from China.

'I got up at 4am to do cleaning in a supermarket and then I went to a factory working as a sauce maker in Frankston [a satellite city] until 2pm. Then I drove to my college in the city to study until 9pm. I would get home at 10pm and have to cook for myself.' But his anonymous benefactor was at hand.

William spent Saturday mornings accompanying himself on a piano he found at Melbourne University, near his home. 'One day I went outside and a man stopped me. He said, 'you have a fantastic voice. I never heard an Asian person sing like that. Why don't you try to be a professional singer?' ' He told William about the local opera company, but the nervous, overworked newcomer with little English dismissed the idea: 'I said, 'I don't know how. I just got here'. And he said, 'I will help you'.

'This man was not even from Melbourne. He came from the country to go to church. About two months later I got a letter from the VSO. They said, 'we have had a letter from a man who says you have a fantastic voice and we would like you to come and audition, but you have missed it this year'.

'So the next year, 1991, I auditioned. I think they got a shock. [Artistic director] Richard Divall asked me if I had been to Italy. He said, 'I cannot believe it. How can a Chinese person sing Italian like a Neapolitan?' ' Former pop star William, used to the spotlight on his national tours and as twice-winner of the All China Young Singers Competition, auditioned only as a soloist. On his way out a VSO administrator grabbed him and warned him that the wait for a solo role could be five years.

'He said I should try for the chorus. So I did, and in my first year I got four operas. So far I have sung more than 20 operas and last year I got an understudy job.

'So I decided to stay here. I still miss home, my parents. But I'm trying to get permanent residence.' And the benefactor? 'I never saw that man again. Australian people are so nice. I have lost my wallet twice and they just sent it back to me.' Australia has brought other chances too: 'I go driving. When I first came here within one month I bought a car even though I didn't have a driver's licence. I'm on my third car now.' Playing snooker - 'I learned this game very quickly' - is his main relaxation, though he admits to the occasional cigarette. But for William, who's divorced and lives with his Pomeranian, Annie, it's the support and friendship of his co-tenors, each of whom also dreams of studying and singing in Europe, that has helped him through the hard times.

Hao says: 'We all love the same food. We all can cook well. On Sundays we get together and have a dinner and it's very relaxed.' There's an easy familiarity as they chat, teasing and punching each other, telling tales about who smokes and who drinks, and of Hao's bicycle crash in which the acrobat-singer was complimented on his backflip by a witness as he lay semi-conscious in the gutter.

Later there's an ecstatic street-side encounter with Hao's girlfriend and the two German Shepherd puppies that are among the eight animals with whom they share their inner suburban house.

Hao is the best known of the three. In 1988 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary about his life. His family has seen it in China, his mother sobbing as she watched the son who had moved to Melbourne to study English the previous year. She was a dancer and it was she who supported him when, as one of the Hunan state Chinese opera company's top Chinese opera singers and acrobats, he left to take private singing lessons in Beijing.

As a result of the documentary, Hao's story became so well-known that his two singing companions are now often confused with him. 'People ask us if we are the one that was singing in the kitchen,' William says.

That pot-scrubbing job was just one of several menial occupations to make ends meet but it was to change his life. Hearing his Italian kitchen colleagues sing Come Back To Sorrento out of key he told them he could do better. He did. His colleagues were stunned, word got round and within weeks Hao was on his way to a VSO audition, its Schools Opera and, last year, its Young Artists Programme.

He began singing at age three, performing with a revolutionary children's choir, and at 12 began three years' training at a Chinese opera school. From there he joined the Hunan company and, on tour with it in the US at age 20, got his first taste of Western opera.

'A friend gave me a tape by Dame Joan Sutherland and I thought, 'that's interesting'. I think in the back of my mind I was always interested in Western music but I did not know the difference,' he says.

'When I decided I was not going to spend all my life doing Chinese opera I had to act at being not very good at what I am doing. I refused roles, found excuses. It was very hard because after five years I had built up a career. I had to start a whole new career, but I told myself this is what I am going to do, I am going to try.' HIS first teacher had to be talked into taking him on: 'He said, 'you already have a career, you don't have the voice for Western opera'.' Without friends or support in the capital, living on noodles and in an unheated room through the winter, Hao realised, 'if you want to do Western opera you have to get to the West.' While William chose Australia because his English did not meet United States requirements, it was Hao's first choice. 'Dame Joan Sutherland is a great singer and her husband [Richard Bonynge] is a great conductor, I thought 'they are both from Australia so Australia must have a good education in Western opera'.

'I also knew the Sydney Opera House, I thought it was great, I thought, 'I want to sing in that one day'.' Chances are he will. VSO concert director Pauline Ashleigh-Marum says: 'It's becoming clear there's a huge demand. And if we can get a concert in Asia we will go to China and give one there.' For Yangzhou-born Kun, 37, brought to Australia by a Darwin friend, a former Nanjing English teacher who thought she saw him bashed on TV, such a concert would realise a dream.

Kun, son of musical parents - an engineer father and teacher mother - heard nothing but revolutionary music during his Cultural Revolution school years and two-and-a-half years assigned to factory work. It wasn't until 1977 that he had the chance to go to university - the Nanjing College of Arts, where he studied voice performance.

'Before that I had never heard of Western opera. My first year I heard Santa Lucia.' He got a private teacher and his desire to sing Western music grew: 'I just loved it, Western opera especially, for me it's more satisfying vocally and emotionally.' After postgraduate study at Beijing's Central Conservatorium he returned to his old school in Nanjing as a teacher, until moving to Darwin in 1990. He threw himself into a 20-week English course. But Darwin had no professional music group. So when he won two fares to Melbourne in a local singing contest he cashed in one and used the other to move south and audition for the VSO.

'That year we all met at the VSO. Aida in the chorus in 1991 was the first thing we all did together.' Kun, whom William says all their women audience members want to take home, lives alone in 'a tiny, tiny, little flat' in inner suburban Prahran and is in his final year of postgraduate voice performance studies at the Victorian College of the Arts. His thesis is a comparison of Western and Chinese opera.

Kun and his co-tenors say they treat their work together and their work in operas as two separate, but not contradictory, careers. They'd love to give a concert in Asia and realise that while regular solo roles in full operas may be elusive, their fame as a trio is already spreading.