09/07/2011 12:58 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

In Search Of A Stage, Western Opera Singers Try China

Lesson No. 1: saying "thank you" in Chinese.

"Xie xie. Xie xie. Xie xie," repeats American soprano Maria McDaniel, as she struggles to pin down the elusive Chinese "x" sound.

"Too much lips going on!" is the verdict of her teacher, Katherine Chu, who was an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

For McDaniel, this workshop is the start of a linguistic journey into another culture. She's one of 20 emerging American and European singers who have recently spent a month learning to sing in contemporary Chinese operas as part of the I Sing Beijing program. It's a sign that the world's cultural focus could be shifting eastward. That shift is being helped by the Chinese government, a major funder of the program.