August 13, 2008

Behind the Music, a Ceremonial Switch ‘Cuter’ Girl Lip-Synched Another’s Performance at Olympic Opening

By Jim Yardley

Huang Yuanxi contributed research.


Pigtailed and smiling, Lin Miaoke, age 9, stood in a red dress and white shoes during the Olympic opening ceremony last Friday and performed "Ode to the Motherland" in what would become one of the evening's most indelible images: a lone child, fireworks blazing overhead, singing a patriotic ballad before an estimated one billion viewers.

Except that she was not really singing.

Her proud father, who learned of her singing role only 15 minutes before the ceremony, watched on television and noticed "that the voice was a little different from hers." On Tuesday, Lin Hui said in a telephone interview that he had assumed "the difference might be caused by the acoustics."

But acoustics had nothing to do with it. Under pressure from the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party to find the perfect face and voice, the ceremony's musical director concluded that the only solution was to use two girls instead of one. Miaoke, a third- grader, was judged cute and appealing but "not suitable" as a singer. Another girl, Yang Peiyi, 7, was judged the best singer but not as cute. So when Miaoke opened her mouth to sing, the voice that was actually heard was a recording of Peiyi.

It was unclear whether Miaoke knew she was being dubbed.

"The reason was for the national interest," Chen Qigang, general music designer of the opening ceremony, explained during a Sunday radio interview. "The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression."

China has tried to make the Olympics a stage to present a picture- perfect image to the outside world, and perfection was clearly the goal for the opening ceremony. The filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who oversaw the production, has drawn raves for a performance considered one of the most spectacular in Olympic history. But to achieve the spectacular, Zhang faked more than the song. Organizers also have admitted that one sequence of the fireworks shown to television viewers was actually digitally enhanced computer graphics used for "theatrical effect."

Dubbing music during large outdoor performances has been known to happen. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, then 71, lip-synched an aria because of his age and the cold. But the recording was still his voice, as is usually the case when performers resort to lip-synching.

After the performance Friday, Zhang appeared at a news conference with Chinese reporters and praised Miaoke. "She's very cute and sings quite well, too," he said.

Asked to name which section of the show he found most satisfying, he first mentioned Miaoke.

"I was moved every time we did a rehearsal of this, from the bottom of my heart," he said, according to a transcript of the news conference.

Miaoke's song was considered critical because it coincided with the arrival of the national flag inside the massive National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest. In his radio interview, Chen said that an unnamed member of the ruling Communist Party's powerful Politburo attended one of the final rehearsals, along with other officials, and demanded that Miaoke's voice "must change."

By Tuesday, the Chinese media had pounced on the story, instigating a national conversation that government censors were quickly trying to mute by stripping away many, but not all, of the comments posted online. The outrage was especially heated over the cold calculation used to choose between the girls.

"Please save the last bit of trueness in our children," wrote one person with an online name of Weirderhua. "They think Yang Peiyi's smile is not cute enough? What we need is truth, not some fake loveliness!"

Another person added: "Children are innocent. Don't contaminate their minds!"

Lin, the father, said he learned of the voice switch when he saw a video clip of the interview by the musical director, Chen. In that interview, on a program called Beijing Music Radio, Chen depicted the process of selecting a singer as a tortured ordeal. He said about 10 children were chosen who "had a good image and who can sing well." Initially, a 10-year-old was selected "whose voice was really good" and who has held the role for most of the rehearsal - until Zhang decided she was too old.

Then, Chen said, the desired age of the singer was lowered, and several young girls, including Miaoke and Peiyi, were taken to the Central People's Radio Station in Beijing. "After the recording, we thought Lin Miaoke's voice was not very suitable," Chen said. "Finally, we made the decision that the voice we would use was Yang Peiyi's."

Just not her face: Photos posted online showed a happy girl with imperfect teeth, hardly an uncommon problem in China. "Everyone should understand this in this way," Chen said. "This is in the national interest. It is the image of our national music, national culture, especially during the entrance of our national flag. This is an extremely important, extremely serious matter."

He added: "I think it is fair to both Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi."

On Monday, Peiyi appeared on China Central Television, the state network. "I'm O.K. with it," she told her interviewer, even performing a song. "My voice was used in the performance. I think that's enough."

Miaoke's father, a newspaper photographer, was worried about how she would take the news. Since age 6, Miaoke has worked in television advertisements, even appearing with the country's hurdling champion, Liu Xiang. Her appearance in the opening ceremony made her an instant celebrity in China, and her image was reproduced around the world.

"Here's something I want to tell you," he said he told her. "The music director announced just now that it was not your voice when you were singing at the opening ceremony. The song was actually performed by you two girls."

To his relief, Lin said his daughter was not upset. He said that the two girls are "good friends" and that Miaoke "doesn't care who sang the song, as long as she performed."

He added: "I don't care about this, either. The only thing I care about is that my daughter will not get hurt by this. She'll understand when she grows up."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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