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China's First Female Conductor Zheng Xiaoying
    2010-04-22 13:57:03     CRIENGLISH.com

She was once the chief conductor of the China National Opera House and the dean of the conductor department at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She is now the conductor and art director of the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra. Although she is 81 years old, she is still busy with rehearsals and regular performances. She has given thousands of lectures about basic music knowledge and how to appreciate classical music and western opera. She is Zheng Xiaoying, China's first female conductor.

Let's follow our reporter He Fei to learn more about her life, which is full of music.

Zheng Xiaoying, China's first female conductor [photo: ccots.com.cn]

"I think today I'm the happiest person in the world since I'm a conductor. Although it's a hard job, the conductor can work together with many musicians to create great music, and the conductor can also enjoy the music with the audience. I see it as happiness. As China's first female conductor, I was admired by many female peers since there was no gender discrimination in my time. I would like to thank my home country and the people."

Zheng Xiaoying said this during a special concert last year, commemorating her 80th birthday and 60 years of teaching experience.

Together with 11 of her students, such as Yu Feng and Chen Zuohuang who are now well-known conductors, Zheng continues to spread her charm on the stage.
She is one of only a few female conductors in the world who is still active on the stage in their 80s. But it's hard to believe that the graceful and passionate woman on the podium is a survivor of colon cancer.

In 1997, six years after she retired, Zheng was about to go to Xiamen to form a philharmonic orchestra there on invitation, but she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

"On that morning, the doctor ordered me to stay in the hospital because he believed that I had cancer. I returned to my home and prepared my lecture for that night and the next day. In short, I finished all my work at hand and then went to the hospital for treatment."

Zheng faced her illness calmly. After four months of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she recovered and stood on the podium again at the age of 68.

As she promised, Zheng went to Xiamen and formed the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra. The musicians practice five hours every day and then give concert each Friday evening.

Now the orchestra has become an indispensable part of Xiamen's cultural life.

"I can persevere in the job, because I believe that through my lectures and my efforts, the city and the people's appreciation of music will grow. Therefore, when Xiamen's citizens voted our orchestra as one of the city's 10 name cards in 2006, I was deeply touched. Actually, when we first founded the orchestra, some local people said it was a waste of money, and few people understood classical music. But after seven years, people admitted that Xiamen can't live without the philharmonic orchestra. The comment is not from the government, but the people."

Zheng Xiaoying was born in an intellectual family. Thanks to her mother, she learned to play the piano when she was six. She was always a good student in school and was recruited by Peking Union Medical College, the best university at the time.

But it was a period when the entire country was in chaos because of the civil war. Zheng was influenced by the advanced ideas being taught at the university and made one of the biggest decisions of her life.

"I was not a Communist Party member, but I wanted to be close to them and join their activities. For instance, I organized a folk choir to sing songs from the region taken by the communist army and the songs from the Soviet Union. When the country was close to being liberated by the Communist party, I left home and went to the communist army controlled region."

That was the winter of 1948. Nineteen-year old Zheng decided to quit school and leave her parents to join a cultural troupe in the liberated area.

It was then that she became familiar with the position of "conductor," which would become her lifelong career.

In 1955, Zheng was selected by a famous conductor from the Soviet Union and became his only female student. She went to Moscow to learn conducting. She made her debut, conducting an opera after graduation in the theater of the Kremlin.

Zheng became the first female orchestra conductor in the history of New China. She was once hailed as the world's best female conductor by the western media.
Besides her professional success, Zheng has made significant contributions to helping the public learn to appreciate western music and opera.

Before Zheng begins a concert, she always gives a brief speech about it and introduces some basic knowledge about the music.

Zheng recalls her experiences in 1978 when she was a conductor at the National Opera House in Beijing.

"Back then I was at the National Opera House, and we had an opera performance in Shijingshan district. A lot of workers and their families came to our concert. At that time, people couldn't understand western opera. Although we sang in Chinese, it was still hard for them to understand. People were so confused that I couldn't even start the performance. I felt sad. But I wouldn't blame the audience since for decades they were banned from the right to enjoy normal music concerts. Then I thought that as artists what could we do to change the situation?"

From then on, Zheng decided to give a 20-minute lecture before every concert she conducted. In the beginning, she had to arrive at the concert hall earlier than usual so she could stand outside the doors to call people in for her lecture.

"Through the lecture, I taught basic knowledge about western opera in a simple way. And my lectures were spread from one to ten, ten to a hundred. Soon, people came of their own will. Some people traveled from Shanghai to listen to my lectures, and some would buy another ticket for the next day just because they missed my lecture before the concert. Seeing people's reactions, I decided to insist on popularizing the knowledge of classical music. It then became my pursuit."

Now, Zheng still maintains the same format of giving lectures before concerts. She says she is much happier seeing the public grow more accustomed to western opera and orchestral music rather than reflecting on her own professional achievements.

For CRI, I'm He Fei.

 
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