The conductor Aik Khai Pung, back for his third year at the Spoleto Festival USA, is approaching it with the fresh eyes of a recent graduate.
Pung completed his doctorate at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati in December. For his final lecture-recital, he staged his own production of an opera familiar to last year's Spoleto attendees: "Matsukaze," the Japanese opera by Toshio Hosokawa. Pung says staging the opera himself was a tremendous undertaking.
"I coached all the singers myself," Pung said. "That's huge."
Because of a scheduling conflict that would keep director of choral activities Joe Miller away from the first week of "El Nino" rehearsals, John Kennedy, resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, needed to find someone familiar with the festival who could lead a week of rehearsals in the Miller's absence. He called Pung.
Unbeknownst to Kennedy, Pung had recently presented "El Nino" at the University of Cincinnati.
"I had the opportunity to learn it two months before I came here," Pung said. "That worked out really, really well."
Pung said that although John Adams' music is "very tricky," he is glad to be back in Charleston and working on this challenging piece again.
Although his role as the assistant conductor is functional, helping the singers to learn the right notes and execute Miller's creative vision, Pung's true passion is vocal coaching. Now a graduate, Pung hopes to find a job coaching singers in China.
"They have all the great hardware, but without software," Pung said. "They don't have enough coaches to coach the singers."
Pung, who is fluent in several languages and continues to expand his linguistic repertoire, says that there is resistance among many in China to learn languages other than Mandarin.
"They just want other people to learn Mandarin and go there and teach them how to sing Italian, German or French," Pung said. "Which is a little bit harder, don't you think?"
Pung hopes to return to China to help opera singers learn to sing in foreign languages - even if they don't at first understand what they're singing about.
"I think I could explain to them how to sing the foreign languages using Mandarin," Pung said. "Although it's a bad thing that they don't learn the language, in some way I can help to bridge the gap."
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.