These days, opera remains political. By bringing classic Western productions to domestic Chinese audiences and exporting Chinese operas and talent like this year's American tour of "Chinese Orphan," performed by the Yu Opera of Henan Province, the Communist Party hopes to dramatically boost its soft power and cultural prestige. In fact, all I Sing Beijing singers have received a full scholarship partly funded by the Hanban/Confucius Institute, a government agency that teaches Mandarin abroad. Cultural collaborations are increasingly common for China, with foreign collaboration on film productions and art exhibitions seen as increasingly lucrative as China's economy soars.
Just as young Americans are flocking to China for corporate job opportunities, opera singers are also looking to the Middle Kingdom.
"You go home to America and it's a downer," said Brian Wahlstrom, 29, a blond former punk-rocker from San Diego who sings baritone. "Endowments are being cut everywhere, but here in China there is all this growth, so learning Mandarin makes sense."
Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa, 21, a Los Angeles native of Japanese and Filipino descent, has found that learning Mandarin has made him a better singer. He is also discovering that his latest role as a global citizen can sometimes get lost in translation.
"People on the street here are really supportive of me learning their language," he said. "But when I tell them I'm from the United States, they say, 'Where are you really from?'"