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"Her character is pretty close to mine," the 25-year-old mezzo-soprano admits. "I'm a girl who has a lot of dreams, very nice dreams. I'm quiet," she adds almost bashfully. "Actually, I talk very little."
Wang may not talk much, but when she sings, she can stop people in their tracks. Here's how the sylphid brunette with a mesmerizing voice scripted her own Cinderella-like transformation from an English-lit major at Peking University to a budding diva in one of America's premier music schools.
"It was a big set-up," Barbara Hilbish laughs as she recalls the story. She was in China with her husband, Thomas, professor emeritus of the School of Music, who had been commissioned by the Asian Council in New York to set up a doctoral program in conducting at the Beijing Conservatory. In 1998, on the last of Thomas's four visits to China, the Beijing Conservatory scheduled a sightseeing tour of the Great Wall for the Ann Arbor couple.
"As soon as she opened her mouth you could tell," recalls Thomas Hilbish of Wang's impromptu recital. As the former interim director of the University Musical Society Choral Union, he knows voices. But it wasn't just Wang's voice, he says, it was also her phrasing, and the clear fact that although she had studied formally only for two years, she had an instinctive grasp of technique-something she'd acquired in part by listening to recordings of her idol, the Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli.
The Hilbishes helped Wang apply to the top US conservatories and music schools and ultimately paved the way for her to obtain a full scholarship to Michigan. Without it she had no hope of studying abroad. So she'd conquered the Hilbishes and won a scholarship. But as in many good tales, our heroine faced a third and last trial.
The US Embassy in Beijing prized Chinese engineering and technology students over voice majors and twice rejected Wang's request for a visa. Told she could try just one more time, she enlisted the help of her American friends. Thomas Hilbish dispatched a letter to Stanley Harsha, the US cultural attaché in Beijing, proclaiming Wang's voice "world-class," and Harsha invited Wang to meet him.
"It says here you have a world-class voice," he told the singer when she arrived. "Let's hear it."
"I have no accompanist," Wang said. But she launched into an a cappella version of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." The voice again worked its magic. Harsha dashed off a letter of recommendation stating that Wang was a "world-class singer" who would contribute significantly to American culture, and sent her to the visa department, where she was again asked to sing-this time in front of some 200 people standing in line for visas. The performance was a triumph. Wang got her visa and flew to Michigan in the fall of 1998. "Beautiful Dreamer" is now her encore song.