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  WINDY CITY TIMES

IN THE LIFE Jonathan Zeng
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2018-05-01

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Life is shaped by experiences—and it's a unique set of occurrences that has led Jonathan Zeng to his upcoming Chicago concert, "Songs That Speak."

Zeng, who studied operatic performance and who has performed throughout the country, moved to Chicago from Cincinnati in 2014, as AIDS Foundation of Chicago hired his partner, Edward Wagner.

However, while Zeng has been singing for most of his life, he didn't engage in songwriting until just a few years ago—something that was spurred by having a teaching job in Cincinnati being rescinded after the school found he is gay. "Edward encouraged me at that time to try writing some of my own songs—and I will be performing at least one of my own tunes during the cabarets," Zeng said. He added that he'll "probably perform 'I Found You,' which is about Edward."

Since moving to Chicago, Zeng said that he's been "lucky enough to perform with a number of organizations. I'm a regular member of the William Ferris Chorale, and we have a concert coming up [May 5 at Chicago's Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church]. I have sung with the Grant Park Symphony Chorus, several productions with the Chicago Fringe Opera, I did one production last summer with Folks Operetta and, this summer, I'll be singing a lead role in the Folks Operetta's The Csardas Princess."

As for the title "Songs That Speak," Zeng has posted a statement explaining it: "It's often said that music is the universal language. While not all music speaks to all people, the sentiment is so true! The communicative power of music transcends spoken word. Just think about how a certain song can evoke an intense emotion or bring you right back to a specific time, place, or experience. All the music we present in 'Songs That Speak' has spoken to me in some profound way. It's my hope that it will speak again through us to all who hear it."

In addition to "I Found You," Zeng added, "People will hear a lot of musical theater—[Stephen] Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown—but there will be some [other] familiar elements, like John Denver and John Mayer. It sort of runs the gamut."

Lastly, when asked what's the allure of musical theater for him, Zeng replied, "Musical theater is a truly American art form, and it tells a story; that's why I'm singing so many songs from musical theater—the storytelling is the most important part, and the stories relate to everyone. I love telling my stories through songs that speak to me."

QUICK STATS:

—Age: 36

—Identifies as: Gay ( and uses pronouns he/him )

—Neighborhood: Bucktown

—Relationship status: Has been with Edward Wagner for almost 10 years

—Favorite snack food: Peanut butter

—One of your favorite musicals: Sweeney Todd

—Dream duet partner: Kristin Chenoweth

—Would you try out for a reality-competition show? "I did many years ago and it's a fascinating idea—but it doesn't really capture what I truly love, which is the in-depth study of a piece."

Jonathan Zeng will perform "Songs That Speak" ( with Doug Bistrow, Michael R. Oldham and Daniel Eastwood ) Saturday, May 12, at 7 p.m. at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets are $15; visit JonathanZeng.com for tickets or music.


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