On the day of her U.S. debut as a pop singer, Ruhan Jia, 29, turned off the air conditioning in her modest Manhattan hotel room to protect her voice.
She ordered sushi. She did some stretching. Other than that, she was quiet.
Jia, a soprano trained in the Chinese and Western operatic traditions, recorded her album “Time to Grow,” credited to Ruhan, last year. It combines pop and classical as well as Chinese and Western sensibilities, and is sung mostly in Mandarin.
Listeners might hear it like a Chinese version of Sarah Brightman, the soprano in “The Phantom of the Opera” who went on to an eclectic career, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 24 issue.
“Time to Grow” was produced in Sweden and mixed by Bernard Lohr, who has worked with Celine Dion and Il Divo. A British record company is distributing it. Jia’s manager is a woman from Taiwan who has lived in the U.S. and Europe for years. Jia’s recording contract is with the biggest music company in China.
Her career has the backing of the Chinese government, which desperately wants an officially approved artist to gain the kind of worldwide attention its dissidents usually get.
“Time to Grow” is the first release from China’s Earth’s Music project, which is part of the government’s five-year national economic development plan.
The Ran Tea House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a popular place for musicians from China to perform. Most, though, don’t arrive on a state-sponsored tour. Inside is a poster of Jia’s CD cover, which features her bathed in sunlight. She’s the very picture of innocence. She could be advertising hair conditioner.
Next to her poster is one for the documentary “Never Sorry,” about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The stage is small, the chairs are wicker, and the ficus trees slightly dusty. The sole member of Jia’s road crew warns her not to step down from the stage with the microphone in her hand.
During the sound check, Jia wears a long gray dress. At 6:30 p.m. she goes into the storage room to change and emerges in a floor-length red strapless gown with sequins, her face fully made up, her hair pulled back in a bun. It’s raining, and only about two dozen people greet Jia when she takes the stage.
Jia has a soaring, powerful voice, and she’s received some acclaim for her bel canto performances. But success will come only if Jia gets extremely lucky.
“I grew up in something like a work camp. My parents pushed me very hard,” Jia says. “All I did was go to school and study music.”
Jia sits with her hands in her lap. She’s in an SUV that’s headed to Norwalk, Connecticut, where her manager, Jean Hsiao Wernheim, and the head of her label, Bill Zang, will listen to an American band that wants to tour China with their backing.
In the 1980s, Wernheim marketed products from Wisconsin, where she lived, to Asia. She’s casually dressed and quick to laugh. Zang, too, is energetic and often seems about to break into song.
When she was 14, Jia left her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang to attend the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in operatic singing. Her parents wanted her to become a music professor, not a performer.
“But the stage is my real life,” says Jia.
Jia won a part in “Monkey: Journey to the West,” an opera based on a popular allegory from the Tang dynasty and composed by Damon Albarn, the front man for British rock group Blur.
“Monkey,” sung in Mandarin, premiered in Manchester in 2007 and went on to Paris and London.
The next year, Jia recorded the BBC theme song for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which Albarn composed.
In 2009, an American composer, Christopher Tin, was close to completing an album, “Calling All Dawns,” drawn from sacred and secular texts around the world. He watched some YouTube clips of Monkey and decided Jia was the Chinese woman he wanted to sing “Dao Zai Fan Ye” (or “The Path Is in Returning”).
The CD won Grammy Awards for best classical crossover album and best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalists.
It was this album that brought Jia to Zang’s attention. As vice president of Shanghai Synergy Culture & Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of state-owned Shanghai Media & Entertainment Group, one of his tasks is to make a global star.
“The government definitely wants to be No. 1 in everything,” says Zang from the front seat of the SUV. “But to find artists who fit in, who speak English, there’s not too many to choose from. Then we heard Ruhan’s song. We hadn’t heard this kind of singing before.”
Zang set up a joint venture with Sony (6758) in the 1990s and served for seven years as the China president of Rock Records, Taiwan’s leading pop music label.
He joined Shanghai Synergy in 2007 and brought on Wernheim as international chief executive. He also hired her business partner, Ed Yen, the former head of the music bureau for Taiwan’s Government Information Office.
That same year, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a speech about promoting Chinese culture at home and abroad.
The concept of soft power was popularized in the late 1980s by Harvard professor Joseph Nye. Today, as China confronts Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea and squabbles with other countries over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, Nye says Beijing is especially aware of the need to win friends.
“How do you prevent your neighbors from forming coalitions against you?” he says. “By appearing to be a popular culture and an attractive place.”
In February, shortly before Communist Party official Bo Xilai was ousted from power amid accusations his wife murdered a British businessman, the Ministry of Culture said it would double the size of China’s culture industry by 2015, to about $140 billion, with an annual growth rate of 20 percent.
Foreign companies see opportunities in China’s cultural campaign. Walt Disney (DIS:US), DreamWorks Animation SKG (DWA:US), James Cameron, and others are investing in the Chinese film industry. New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts last year signed a deal with the city of Tianjin to advise it on cultural projects.
The Nederlanders, owners of the second-largest chain of Broadway theaters, help Chinese performers come to the U.S.
“We believe there is a commercial market here on Broadway for great Chinese entertainment,” says Robert Nederlander Jr., president of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment.
The results of China’s efforts to charm the West are “pretty dismal” so far, says Johan Lagerkvist, senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Ai, Liu Headlines
Headlines about the persecution of Ai Weiwei and imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo overshadow the good works of Jia and other cultural ambassadors -- or for that matter the reporting of China’s own news agency, Xinhua.
China lags behind much smaller countries such as South Korea as a cultural force because of its lack of liberty, says Ting Wai, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies Chinese soft power.
Yen and Wernheim are encouraging Jia to become more assertive and confident, to act as if she’s already a star.
“We ask her to be like Barbra Streisand,” Yen says.
Jia first heard from Zang in the fall of 2010, when she was studying for a master’s degree in music at Stony Brook University, New York. Zang asked her to meet him in Shanghai; they went to a concert by Dadawa, the last Chinese singer to try, without much success, to penetrate the Western market.
After the Grammys, Jia quit Stony Brook and returned to Shanghai, where she has a studio in the Synergy music park.
“It’s my quiet place,” says Jia. In it are boxes of CDs Zang and Wernheim provided for her to study. Queen, Kiss, Eminem, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson: all the music she could never listen to growing up.
Jia found the lightest of the pop songs on her album, “Dancing on a Rainbow,” particularly difficult to master. Classical singing requires articulation and projection. It has taken practice to sound more like someone you could dance to.
“It’s the opposite of how she was trained. All the muscles are different. She has to smile when she sings,” says Wernheim. “She had to learn to sing with a microphone, too.”
Wernheim sent the finished recording to an acquaintance in London, Keith Ferreira, who runs Silva Screen Records.
“I was smitten by her voice,” he says, and is distributing the album in Europe. He also advertised the CD on the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square in November 2011, though he hasn’t been able to get “Time to Grow” much radio time. Stations that specialize in Jia’s kind of music are less common than they were back when Dion was at her peak.
Jia begins her performance at the Ran Tea House accompanied by the faint barking of the owner’s dog in the background.
“This album is about my life,” she says. She sings the title song, as well as “Dancing on a Rainbow,” a traditional Tibetan piece, and a few others, to applause. Wernheim is filming the show for YouTube; someone else is taking pictures for Jia’s Facebook page, which she cannot check when she is in China because of state controls. (Twitter also isn’t permitted in China; Jia has 450,000 followers on Weibo, a similar service.)
“After each show, I ask Bill and Jean how I did,” Jia says. Zang is encouraging. It was better than her last show, he says, which was at a festival in Moscow.
“Singing in English I feel more open and powerful,” Jia says. “Chinese is so soft. I hope for a big stage, for good lights, lots of people. I want a bigger stage.”
This summer, she began recording a second album, this time in Paris. Meanwhile, “Time to Grow” has sold a little more than 1,000 copies.
Muse highlights include Mark Beech and Farah Nayeri on arts, Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.
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