Doug Nagel, heroic baritone and professor of voice at Montana State University Billings, has just returned from a month of teaching in China.
MSU Billings has a partner university, Xuchang University in Hunan Province. It’s an educational complex with more than 28,000 students all living on campus in six-story dorms, six to a room. There are no elevators, by the way.
The professor arrived late on a Saturday and after recovering from his long flight, on Sunday afternoon he walked over from his hotel to find his office.
“The music building was five stories and I was on the fourth floor. There were 50 practice rooms to a floor and every one was full. They (the Chinese students) are very dedicated.”
In many of Professor Nagel’s photos, his Chinese students look very young. They weren’t, he said, but they were very short.
“They came to about here on me,” he said, gesturing to about mid chest. The professor is more than six feet tall. He stood out wherever he went. Not only was he of a different ethnic background, he could always see over the crowd.
“I taught in the international studies department, 24 students, eight boys and the rest girls, from age 18 to 22.” They’re all in the process of learning English.
Professor Nagel had planned to teach German lieder and Italian art songs, as well as Broadway tunes, but he soon changed course.
They were all eager to come to America to study.
“Basically, I realized that I needed to teach them Broadway tunes to improve their English.” He used songs like “Tonight,” “Matchmaker” and “If I Loved You” without skimping on their vocal training.
“The whole purpose is to bring some of these kids over here to study. I’m going to get more involved with our international studies department. I now know what it feels like to be in a foreign country,” he said.
Professor Nagel did have a translator, Miss Yue (Yu-ee,) but after a week he taught without her in the classroom.
“Music’s a universal language,” he said. Enough students spoke some English that he could demonstrate what he wanted by actually singing and also with facial expressions and gestures. His many years performing opera stood him in good stead as well.
Life in China for the professor was difficult but exhilarating at the same time. He quickly mastered eating with chopsticks. He stayed in a modern hotel that was a short walk from campus, but the climate was 85 degrees and humid. “I’d be moist by the time I got to school,” he said.
Chinese breakfast consisted of eggs, three kinds of soup and Chinese steamed sweet buns, a kind of dim sum. He only tried the Chinese idea of Western bread once, finding it gray and tasteless.
“I ate a scorpion (deep fried.) It was crunchy and wonderful. And drinking, drinking, drinking!”
One weekend he took the fast train, a modern marvel that sped along at 200 mph, to Xi-an (She-an,) the first imperial capital of China, founded by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C.E. His royal highness commanded that his tomb be started when he ascended the throne. More than 7,000 life-size terra cotta warriors, horses, and chariots eventually guarded him in death.
Professor Nagel’s month ended with a personal performance. “I did my recital in the music building. They had this 9-foot Steinway, and I had three different accompanists. It was so amazing. There were 500 people in a 300-seat hall.”
Because there were empty risers behind him, he suggested that some of the students with no seats come up on stage.
There are no intermissions in Chinese recitals, so two other singers, a soprano and a baritone, sang to give Professor Nagel a rest.
The dean of the university was amazed that the concert was ready in such a short time. “This usually takes over a year. How did you do this?” he asked.
“The kids were incredibly excited,” said Professor Nagel. “They treated me like a rock star, like I was Justin Bieber. I signed autographs for over an hour after the performance.”
And they all wanted a picture with him. In many photos, smiling students hold up fingers in a V for peace.
“Was this a great experience?” Professor Nagel echoed the question. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”
The Chinese don’t say good-bye, they say, Zai Jian, See you soon. “When I come back, (not if) I would like to have more time and also know more Mandarin.”