Singing In Mandarin, Or A Vocalist’s Guidebook To Minefield Survival

A performance of “Havoc in Heaven’ by the Peking Opera in 2014

Singing in Mandarin – A Guide to Chinese Diction and Vocal Repertoire. Katherine Chu and Juliet Petrus. Rowman & Littlefield. 359 pages.

BOOK REVIEW – Singers don’t have to be fluent in a language to sing in it, although it undoubtedly helps, but their pronunciation needs to be on par with that of a native speaker. An estimated 1.3 billion people speak Chinese as their native language, for whom roughly 917 million Mandarin is their mother tongue. For non-native speakers, conversing in Mandarin is a challenge, as some of its consonants and vowels are difficult to pronounce and it is a tonal language. Each word consists of a single syllable, whose meaning is delivered by context and a specific tone linked to each word. It’s a minefield for non-native speakers, as the wrong tone can drastically change the meaning of a word.

Fortunately, singers don’t have to worry about tones; the composer solves that problem through the musical setting. They do, however, have to master pronunciation, which is a challenge for everyone. Western-style vocal techniques can inhibit the ability to produce sounds that are comprehensible to the listener. Singing in Mandarin – A Guide to Chinese Diction and Vocal Repertoire is the first comprehensive guide to both the language and the century-old tradition of Western-style vocal music.

In 2011, soprano Juliet Petrus, who spoke no Mandarin at the time, was in China to participate in the first I SING BEIJING, now called iSING! International Young Artists Festival, where Katherine Chu was one of her coaches. Chu is an American pianist who has been a pioneer in vocal coaching and musical preparation in China. Currently on the faculty of the Tianjin Juilliard School, Chu worked previously at the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts.

Petrus has gone on to be one of the few Western singers to specialize in Chinese classical song. From the very first, however, she saw the need for a comprehensive and coherent guide to Mandarin diction, a tool that was available to singers in most other languages. Their book is the culmination of nearly 10 years of study, research, and performing the Chinese lyric repertoire.

Singing in Mandarin is divided into two sections, with the first focusing on the language and how to pronounce it. Context is important for these authors, so they provide historical details as well as practical advice every step of the way. Since Chinese singers are well versed in Pinyin, a spelling system using the Roman alphabet to show how Chinese characters are pronounced, it appears alongside the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of phonetic notation familiar to most conservatory-trained singers. IPA proved inadequate to accurately illustrate certain sounds in Mandarin, so they created new symbols to best depict them.

Juliet Petrus

Study aids are provided, including pronunciation charts and audio exercises made by professional singers who are native Mandarin speakers. Equally important is the guidance they provide on how to approach stylistic issues when singing in Mandarin, such as suggestions as to the appropriate places to breathe to maintain the natural flow of the text and where to insert glottal stops, which don’t exist in spoken Mandarin but are encountered when singing in it.

The second half of the book is devoted to the history of the development of Western-style vocal music in China, including separate chapters on Taiwan and Hong Kong. Given the paucity of information on the subject in English, it is an important reference work for anyone interested in the topic. The text would have benefited from some judicious editing, but the dictionary-like entries are concise and rich in detail. The footnotes also provide fascinating reading. They include examples of works that are discussed are included.

The history of Western music in China dates to the arrival of the first Jesuits in the 16th century, but it was three centuries before Protestant missionaries arrived and brought their music with them. Hymns and school songs, however, soon gave way to music with more nationalist impulses, with composers turning to traditional Chinese poetry, folk music, and nature for inspiration. As the 20th century progressed, song was weaponized by political movements to counter one another’s ideologies, as well as to instill resolve during the long and horrific occupation of China by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.

Katherine Chu

During the Cultural Revolution, all foreign culture was banned, including Western classical music. Musicians were actively persecuted, and instruments were destroyed. “Model works,” including operas, were promoted to instill proletarian fervor in the masses. Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping came to power and reversed most of the Cultural Revolution policies.

With those reforms, a new wave of Chinese classical music was ushered in by composers who came of age in the early 1980s. Tan Dun, Chen Qigang (who studied with Olivier Messiaen), Bright Sheng (who was Leonard Bernstein’s last student and wrote the forward to this book), and others forged a musical style that was a synthesis of Chinese and Western traditions. The success of their music, along with the success of Chinese artists internationally across many art forms, has focused the world’s attention on the developing cultural phenomenon in China.

In seeking to unlock the secrets of singing in Mandarin, Chu and Petrus have produced an essential aid for anyone seeking to enter the world of Chinese music.