Juliet Petrus is comfortable and at home in her cozy Chicago apartment. Yet the posters on her wall, 1960s socialist art accompanied by bright red Chinese characters, hint at the exotic experiences that have shaped her career.

Opera singer Petrus and her accompanying pianist Lydia Qiu will be performing at Britton Recital Hall on Friday, Feb. 12, and at the Detroit Opera House for a Valentine’s Day Concert on Sunday, Feb. 14.  The performance, entitled “A Great Distance,” will feature Chinese art songs off their recent album of the same name.

The genre, unknown to most Western listeners, even those knowledgeable about opera, blends European classical opera with Chinese lyrics, which are taken from ancient Chinese poems and set to music. The style was originally created by Chinese composers educated in Europe during the early 20th Century who wanted to breathe new life into old forms. But during and after the Communist Revolution, foreign forms of expression were frowned upon, if not banned. This period of musical history remains fascinating for Petrus, as those brightly-hued posters suggest.

As China has opened up to the West in recent decades, a hunger for European and American artistic traditions has taken the country by storm.

“There’s so much emphasis these days in China on being ‘Western’ as in dressing or looking Western, listening to Western music and watching Western TV,” Petrus said in an interview with the Michigan Daily.

This desire for Western expression led to the collaborative forces that drew both Qiu and Petrus to China and then eventually together.

After training at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, both Petrus and Qiu found their way into the Chinese music scene. For Qiu, it was relatively simple: as a Chinese national, her interest in both Eastern and Western classical music pulled her in both directions, working with Chinese students at times and spending the majority of her time as a faculty member at the University.

For Petrus, the route had a few more twists and turns. After performing as a Western opera singer throughout the United States, she enrolled in a brand new program called “I Sing Beijing,” which sent classically trained American singers to China for free intensive language, cultural and music training. She fell in love with the country that welcomed her with open arms.

“Initially, it was the audiences in China that hooked me. There’s a great appreciation for Westerns who take the time to sing or speak Chinese,” Petrus said. “But these days, it’s truly about giving back a part of the musical culture.”

As Petrus’s Chinese performances became more and more popular, she wanted to raise awareness of overlooked forms of expression in the country’s vast musical repertoire. Chinese art song, a form often relegated to music conservatories, seemed like just the thing.

“There is so much Chinese art song that is beautiful and under-performed or unnoticed,” she said. “In a way, it seems like a Westerner shining light on this helps to bring validity to these songs.”

As a beloved Western performer, she was able to bring attention to the form more than even a Chinese national alone could.

Petrus and Qiu knew each other slightly from their time at the University, and now seemed like the perfect time to combine their talents. The resulting album, “A Great Distance,” bridges great musical traditions from two continents. It has been well received in China, where many opera teachers now use it as a way to show their students the true artistry that the genre is capable of.

“Being that we come from very different backgrounds,” Petrus said, “I believe that we both bring a very different point of view to the music and push each other to look at songs with fresh eyes.”

After their United States tour is complete, the two women will return to China for another visit. They perform at conservatories and concert halls throughout the country, and hold workshops and master classes for the many aspiring singers thirsty for new musical styles.

Helping young students reach their dreams is a rich and rewarding process for both performers.

“As much as I love to perform, I also love working with young Chinese singers,” Petrus explained. “I have been so impressed with the levels of singers at many of the conservatories we’ve visited. I always look forward to going back and working with more students.”

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