In China, you can hear the tenor voice of Ricky Feng Nan on the airwaves: take for example his recent performance of “Sunrise Again” which opened the Model Beijing Award ceremony. His opera performances have racked up millions of views and more than 200,000 fans follow him on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
But go back a decade, and he wandered through Harpur College’s many disciplines and specialties, trying to find his footing.
Born in Wuhan and raised in Guangzhou, Nan ’15 came to the United States at the age of 17, attending Houghton Academy in Buffalo before unseeingly choosing Binghamton to lay the foundation for his future. His father wanted him to major in political science and follow in his footsteps in the world of diplomacy
At Harpur, Nan took courses in economic philosophy, mathematics, psychology, sociology and drama. But slowly, a melody emerged during those first two years: his love of singing, even though he never had the opportunity to receive formal training growing up. Western opera is not popular in China, after all, which has its own vocal traditions.
“All my friends did accounting, economics, finance; even the liberal arts were considered impractical in terms of investment and return,” he explained. “But I looked around and saw friends who were choosing a subject they weren’t really passionate about, and I realized I couldn’t waste my life doing something I don’t love. .”
During his sophomore year, he decided to enroll in a voice lesson.
“I knew so little about classical singing and the classical repertoire. I had nothing to audition for, so I sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ for the audition,” he said.
Nan’s sincerity struck a chord with associate voice professor Thomas Goodheart, who offered her a place in his studio. While at Binghamton, Nan made meaningful connections with many members of the music faculty, who taught her the intricacies of the art, from pitch precision to counterpoint, breath control and more.
But Goodheart and his wife, music teacher Jean Goodheart, ultimately turned his life around, and Nan remains in touch today. In fact, before the coronavirus hit in March 2020, Nan was staying at the couple’s home, preparing to sing the lead role in Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera.” Unfortunately, the pandemic canceled the show.
“As an undergrad, he clearly possessed the talent, charisma and intellect needed to pursue a professional musical career. We worked with him to establish the strong vocal technique and work ethic that would be required. to succeed and compete,” the Goodhearts said. “He’s the kind of person who connects and learns from every environment he finds himself in. We are proud to know that he carries a part of us with him on his life journey.”
In her freshman year, Nan joined Tri-Cities Opera, the Binghamton-area professional opera company, as a backing vocalist for a production of Carmen. He had found his way.
“I finally started to understand what opera really is and how amazing it is to have a life as a performer and artist,” he said. “I think opera is the deepest expression of human emotion; it is a combination of singing, acting, dancing, orchestration, counterpoint, history, language, literature.
The art requires singers to project their voice without the use of a microphone, often for long performances. Nan compared it to the “voice olympiads”, an extreme and complex form of vocal art that forces performers to reach unnatural pitches – all those “crazy high notes”, in the case of tenors.
The art form also crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries; Nan has performed in multiple languages, including Russian, Chinese, and Cantonese, as well as French, German, English, and Spanish.
“Every day I challenge the impossible, bringing out the deepest emotions in human beings and connecting with the audience, while playing the life of someone else – a French or Italian character from a long time ago. 200 or 300 years,” he said.
Nan officially majored in music in her freshman year, but wasn’t quite sure how to tell her parents. He understood their objections: although a tenor capable of reaching an enviable range of high notes, he was still a novice and would be competing with singers with years of training.
Nan didn’t break the news until his senior year, when he auditioned for Northwestern University’s opera program – and got in. He followed this with a second Master of Musical Arts at Yale University.
After completing his freshman year at Yale, he returned to China to participate in a television show that promotes opera and musical theater singers. It was a success.
One opportunity led to another: a Weibo fandom, and TV and concert opportunities, from opera and musical theater to pop, rock and even rap. Ricky Feng Nan sang for the Chinese president and shared the stage with Jackie Chan. At the moment, he is in Shanghai, filming another TV show about singers.
Nan originally dreamed of performing in large venues: the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Opera, La Scala in Italy. As he continues to hone his skills in classical music, the pandemic has pushed his career path in a different direction, towards television performances, concerts and shows. Will a movie deal be next? It is curious to see where the road leads.
“I tried to audition for all kinds of things and see where life takes me,” he said.