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A Vocal Career That Began With a Broken Arm

Oscar Z.C. Zhang, a tenor whose O.C. debut is tonight, started from scratch--and poverty--in his native China.


Like lots of kids, Chinese tenor Oscar Z.C. Zhang once dreamed of becoming a movie star. Failing that, he would be a gymnast. For six years, he worked out to be the latter. Then one day he fell off the parallel bars and broke his left arm.

"That made me very upset at that time," Zhang said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "I dropped my dream of competing in international gymnastics."

Fortunately, another dream soon emerged. Zhang's high school teacher had discovered his "special voice" and advised him to study at a music conservatory instead of a going to a regular university.

"I had never thought I could be a singer," said Zhang, who will make his Orange County recital debut tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"But after that day, I thought, 'Why not?' But up to that time, I hadn't even seen a piano. I couldn't read music. We were very, very poor. You can't imagine it."

The 35-year-old tenor was born in Tianjin, China, a seaport city about two hours from Beijing. His father, a police officer, died toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. His mother, a doctor, still practices in his hometown.

Zhang studied music at the city's conservatory of music, sang for two years at the local opera company, then went on to study at the Shanghai Conservatory.

A small role in a production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" there got him the attention of San Francisco Opera, which had a sister-city relationship with Shanghai.

As a result, Zhang was invited to participate in the opera's famous Merola opera training program, which he attended for three months in 1991.

"I was so happy," the tenor said. "Every Chinese artist wanted to come to the West to learn Western music.

"But I was also scared. When I first came to the United States, I couldn't speak a word of English. But I have been confident all my life. We can communicate through our feelings, our face and eyes. So anywhere I can go to, even to the moon, I can live there."

After finishing his stint in the Merola program, he petitioned Chinese officials to stay in the United States.

"I said, 'America is so big. It has a lot of things I want to know. Please give me time. Let me fill myself with American culture. If I can learn such things, I can go back to teach our students in China. But I can also tell them what I saw in America.' "

What persuaded the authorities to let him stay was winning first prize in the 1992 Carlo Bergonzi North American International Opera Competition.

"I got a letter from them saying, 'Your hometown in China thanks you that you got the top honor. You can stay there. What do you need? Do you need help?' I said, 'I don't need anything, just warm words and feelings.' "

Zhang went on to take other top honors, including finalist in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice competition in 1995. (The competition does not rank singers as first, second or third-prize winners.)

Currently, Zhang lives in Arcadia, with his wife, pianist Madeline Wu, and their two children, Alfred, who is 6, and Carrie, who is 4. The Zhangs were married in 1992.

His wife will accompany him in his recital, which also enlists soprano Susan Asbjornson, pianist Elvia Puccinelli and the UCI Symphony, led by Stephen Tucker. The program is sponsored by Bravi 9 Inc., an Orange County nonprofit cultural organization.

Zhang hopes his recital will draw local and national attention.

"My dream is to fight for my career. My wife, when she was little, had the same dream as I did. We called it 'the American dream.' "

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


Oscar Z.C. Zhang, Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Stephen Tucker will lead the UCI Symphony; pianists Elvia Puccinelli and Madeline Wu will accompany. Tonight at 8. $20 to $50. (949) 854-4646.

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