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Black teen's unusual talent: Singing Chinese opera

Tyler Thompson is an unlikely star in the world of Chinese opera.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tyler Thompson is an unlikely star in the world of Chinese opera.

The black teenager from Oakland has captivated audiences in the U.S. and China with his ability to sing pitch-perfect Mandarin and perform the ancient Chinese art form.

"As soon as he opens his mouth and sings in Chinese, the Chinese are very surprised and then feel very proud of him," said his music teacher Sherlyn Chew. "When he puts on the costume, and all the acting, you can see that he's pretty good."

Tyler, 15, is a standout student in Chew's Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth — mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music. The program's Great Wall Youth Orchestra & Chorus has performed around the country.

Tyler has learned to sing several well-known pieces of Chinese opera, a centuries-old form of musical theater known for its elaborate costumes, clanging gongs and cymbals, wide-ranging vocals and highly stylized movements.

At the World Children's Festival in Washington in June, Tyler, dressed in a black robe emblazoned with golden dragons, got a standing ovation when he performed as Justice Bao, a famous Song Dynasty judge who fought government corruption, from the Chinese classic "Bao Qing Tian."

"The music is very beautiful, and it's very passionate. You can hear it when it's being played," said Tyler, a theater student at the Oakland School for the Arts. "It's made me want to know more about the world outside of America or California or Oakland."

David Lei, chairman of the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation in San Francisco, has seen Tyler perform several times and arranged to have him sing at the opening of a Chinese opera exhibit several years ago.

"It's very authentic because he hits the tones just right, so you understand everything," Lei said. "People just don't expect an Afro-American kid to be doing it. It's the initial shock. There's a sense of novelty."

Tyler, who comes from a music-loving family, began learning how to sing in Chinese a decade ago when he was a kindergartner in Chew's music class at Oakland's Lincoln Elementary School, where about 90 percent of students are Asian.

Chew quickly recognized Tyler's talent and recruited him to join her Purple Silk music program, where students learn to sing Chinese songs and play traditional instruments such as a two-string violin called an erhu, a four-stringed lute known as a pipa and a bamboo flute called a dizi.

"I really took a liking to him and thought he had quite a large range," said Chew, who started the music program at Oakland's Laney College in 1995. "He hears pitch very well, and his pronunciation of Chinese characters is very accurate."

Tyler's mother, Vanessa Ladson, said her son's education at a predominantly Asian elementary school and participation in the Chinese music program have made him more open-minded.

"He's grown a lot," she said. "He's learning a different culture, and the Asian children are learning his culture, so it's a plus-plus for everybody."

Tyler said friends and classmates sometimes poke fun at him, wondering where a black kid from Oakland learned how to sing Chinese opera.

"Sometimes they don't understand it," Tyler said. "It's just joking about the fact that as dark as I am, I'm singing Chinese. What's up with that? If I go to China, I'm going to stick out like a sore thumb. It's just those types of jokes. All in good fun."

Since his first solo at age 6, Tyler has performed at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall and Herbst Theater, on television shows such as "Good Morning America" and at the U.S. State Department, where he sang for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi.

Tyler became a sensation in China several years ago after Chinese Central Television broadcast his performance at a Lunar New Year show in San Jose.

Tyler, who has learned to speak some basic Chinese, was scheduled to make his debut performance in China in July, but he and his mother ran into trouble getting visas in time, Chew said.

In recent years, Tyler has begun studying theater and acting more seriously, but he plans to keep performing traditional Chinese music, which has opened up a world of opportunities to him.

"I've been sticking to this to see where else it will take me," he said.