As a youth, Leesburg resident Tianxu Zhou did not know too much about opera until a voice teacher heard him sing his typical pop tunes.
“If you have this gift for opera, you will end up singing for opera,” said Zhou, who 15 years later is a member of the Washington Opera. He toured with the company last July during the company’s largest international tour, which was to Japan. The tour included three operas and nine performances sung by more than 250 members including world famous singers and two of the three tenors, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo
“For me, it’s exciting to perform with those famous artists,” Zhou said. “I get a chance to sing with them on the same stage.”
Zhou grew up in Beijing, China and took his first voice lesson there when he was 17 years old. He sang for high school choirs, in competitions and around the house, usually picking pop tunes. His father, who was a composer and musician at the time, told him to take lessons if he was serious about singing.
AFTER A FEW LESSONS, Zhou’s voice teacher asked him if he wanted to try an aria, the solo song in an opera performance.
“Little by little, I discovered the voice I never thought I had,” Zhou said. “It took me a long time, quite a few years, to really understand the beauty of classical music, of opera and of aria songs, but still I fell in love with them.”
Zhou, who is 33, underwent three years of training with a voice teacher, then auditioned into the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1994 in voice and opera. He taught for one year there as a student teacher and another two years as a tenured staff member.
In 1996, he moved to Winchester to attend Shenandoah University, so he could earn a master’s degree in 1998 in vocal performance. He chose the school, since opera is more popular in the United States than in Beijing, he said.
“As an opera singer, I want to learn more about opera, find more opportunities to perform it. Here is the best choice,” said Zhou, who is a baritone singer.
IN 1997, Zhou began teaching at the university, where he still teaches as an adjunct professor. In the meantime, he met Kerri Quinlan-Zhou, a student at the time and now the coordinator of the Public Schools’ Summer in the Arts program. They married in 1999.
“Singing is my life, so one of the biggest things, especially in this profession, is to never give up,” Zhou said. “Singing is a difficult profession. … I didn’t think I’d make a living as a musician.”
Zhou does just that, teaching at the university, giving voice lessons in his home studio, teaching a master class with the Growing Stage this fall, singing in competitions and contracting with opera companies, mainly the Washington Opera, which he joined in 1999.
“I’ve heard him in a couple competitions,” said Maryland resident Elizabeth Daniels, a voice teacher, state governor of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and board member of the Vocal Arts Society of Washington. “He is a consummate artist. He’s got both the natural talent plus the vocal skill and musicianship to be the total artist,” she said, adding that Zhou sings elegantly with “fabulous technique.” “The minute you hear him, you are impressed by this unusual timbre. … It’s a mixture of richness and darkness, plus focus, which is unusual. I seriously think this young man is ready for a major career.”
IN 2000, Zhou opened a studio and currently has seven students, whom he teaches individually for one hour once a week. He plays the piano as he sings, something he learned to do in a required college course. The piano is an accompaniment for his students and a tool he uses to learn new songs.
“Of course, teaching is one of my passions. I enjoy working with my students to help them discover their talent,” Zhou said. “I went through a lot, so I see every stage they’re going through. I like to help them work it out and have their talent on stage.”
Zhou experiences “a surge of energy” when he is on stage and connects and communicates with the audience, he said. Without a costume and stage character, he has his voice as his tool. “You’re telling the story with music. You share it with people and people receive it all differently,” said Zhou, who tells his students singing is an art.
“If you can find a living doing what you love, that’s the best in life,” Zhou said.
TWO OF ZHOU’S other loves are painting and photography. Zhou has painted as a hobby since he was a child.
“I just enjoy art. … It does help me with singing,” he said, adding that art allows him to put color and a visual imagination to the songs he sings. “It’s really helpful from visual art to performing art.”