She stands on stage alone, a vibrant jade dress framing her regal figure, arms open wide, inviting the world into her heart and holding the audience — gentle, unwavering. Long legato tones riding a wave of tender vigour pour from her mouth with an ease and effortlessness I had never seen before, nor heard, despite my many trips to the Met for opera. Something was different, something special.
Shen Yun Performing Arts’ young soprano Haolan Geng — whose “delicious” singing has blown away other Metropolitan Opera soloists year after year — is unexpectedly Chinese, belting out bel canto in her native tongue. Presumably, the transition from a romance language’s smooth interplay of vowels and consonants to a more abrupt language void of round sounds, such as Mandarin, should be unpleasing. Oddly enough, I found the opposite — a lightness and silkiness as beautiful as bel canto in Italian.
Experiencing such ageless poise and vocal purity, I couldn’t fathom how this Chinese soloist could harness such a unique sound at half the age of most singers of opera, an artform touted for its demand of decades of dedicated training. Was she simply blessed from above? Or had she unearthed a secret? As I spoke with Geng about her life, insight as surprising as her voice unfolded.
It’s hard to hear Geng sing and question whether this was what she was born to do.
“I loved to sing ever since I was very young,” Geng recalls. “When I heard singing on the radio, I knew I wanted to learn as well.” Raised in a traditional family in China that believed in the importance of the arts, Geng joined choirs starting at the city then provincial levels, expanding her skill along with the size of the stage.
She humbly admits there seemed to be an element of “tian fen” — “something the heavens give you” — or in layman’s terms, a God-given talent. But she says her youthful exuberance drove her more than any sense of preordained purpose, at least at first.
To hone her craft, at age 16, the prodigal student enrolled in the Guangzhou Conservatory of Music. “I mostly focused on how to improve myself technically and how to better express and interpret the song in order to touch people,” she says.
Her artistic devotion did not go unnoticed. She won the gold medal at the First Music Competition of the Guangdong Arts Festival in 2007 and then earned critical acclaim a year later for her graduation recital, opening the doors for her to star in the Guangdong Opera Company.
After a year of mesmerizing audiences in China, a trip to the US would alter her course of life for good. In 2009, she participated and won a New York-based Chinese TV network’s global singing competition, enthralling the judges. An international spotlight now shone down on the young star.
The TV network — NTDTV — also sponsors the cultural phenomenon Shen Yun Performing Arts, a classical Chinese dance and cultural troupe that has inspired millions across multiple continents over the last decade.
Naturally, the director of Shen Yun asked Geng to join them. Geng thought joining the famous troupe would be the perfect way for her to take her artistry to new heights. What she failed to foresee was that she wouldn’t be simply building on what she had already learned, she’d be starting over.
Once at Shen Yun, Geng learned that ancient Chinese theatre and European opera shared the same bel canto technique, a far superior singing methodology to her contemporary training in China.
While the greatest composer of the 19th century — Gioachino Rossini — made bel canto famous, the singing style’s Western origins started much earlier. In the 1500s, a circle of Italian intellectuals — Galileo’s father among them — would gather at the palace of Count Giovanni Bardi of Florence in hopes of reviving classical Greek thought and art. From this assembly of Italian dignitaries arose the search for “divine vocal beauty,” and eventually the development of bel canto, literally meaning “beautiful singing.”
Bel canto vocalizes and articulates from a different vocal position — an acoustic dome high up in the head — which acts as a massive amplifier so that singers could reach thousands of people at both high and low volumes without distortion or microphones, since the technology hadn’t been invented.
“It was only after I came to Shen Yun that I realized that my previous vocal placement was incorrect,” says Geng. In fact, a true bel canto soloist can easily overpower a 50-person symphonic orchestra if needed, all without losing any tonal quality.
But “along with social changes that brought about the waning of traditional culture and arts, this genuine technique had been lost,” explains Geng. The original bel canto “differs from the bel canto you hear today, which has diverged from its earliest form.” Her words confirmed what my ear already knew — her vocal purity and power were indeed tangibly different from other bel canto singers I’d heard. But it wasn’t technique alone that separated her.
After she joined Shen Yun, Geng was reintroduced to a traditional meditation system that her grandparents practiced — called Falun Dafa — since many of the other Shen Yun artists also practiced it. With the seeds having already been planted in her youth, Geng naturally gravitated towards its meditative exercises and principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
“To reach a higher realm as an artist, I think morality plays a vital role,” Geng reveals. “It’s about leading a life of integrity. If you go about pretentiously offstage, you won’t be able to express any sincerity on stage. When the sounds and feelings you let out are pure, your song will be able to truly touch your listener.”
Through meditation and letting go of her character flaws, such as fear and pride, fewer stray thoughts interfered with her on stage, placing her mind and heart in a more tranquil space. “I no longer purposefully try to emotionally touch the audience one way or another. Without pursuit, these things actually happen naturally, and in a more powerful way. It’s a priceless experience.”
Cultivating ren — forbearance — has also been an integral part of her inner and outer journey, because Shen Yun’s 100-city tour is as demanding physically as it is emotionally. But solace and strength rest within the lyrics she sings.
“This music is about the meaning of life, a path to Heaven, truth, awareness, and enlightenment. Be it for the audience or for us musicians — it truly speaks to your inner world.”
She smiles softly, equally adult, child and angel, a culmination of walking a destiny handed to her, a marriage of gift and gumption filling her with gratitude.
“If the theatre is bright enough, I can see the audience wiping away tears when I’m on stage. I’ve witnessed this many times. It’s so stirring to see it happening right before me.”
Chinese text by Rui Chen English text by J.H. White Produced by Peggy Liu.