IN CONVERSATION with Huang Ying and Joshua Wickerham

one of the world’s most promising operatic artists returns to Shanghai in Handel’s Messiah

by Joshua Wickerham for that’s Shanghai, September 2006

Last year, Shanghai-born Ying Huang (known to Chinese fans as Huang Ying) performed the soprano solo in the Chinese mainland premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. In many ways, it was a landmark event in the history of Chinese exposure to Western music. Maestro John Nelson, conductor of L’ Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, led four soloists–Ying Huang, Warren Mok, Tian Haojiang and Liang Ning–and three choirs, in a performance that can only be described as deeply spiritual.

Though a large part of the audience was unfamiliar with choral music, the spirit of the sacred works did not require translation. Indeed, the experience was described by one member of the audience as “moving” another said she was “transported.” This year organizers from the Committee of 100 Cultural Institute hope to build on that success with Messiah, featuring Huang, and counter-tenor Larry Zazzo (the first counter-tenor to perform in China, and one that organizer Shirley Young says should be “a real treat”). The appearance of Zazzo and Huang will follow their debut this year at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

We spoke with Huang Ying in Rome, where she has been brushing up on her Italian after touring Japan, Germany, Canada and the US. She seemed intoxicated with the Italian spirit, rolling her Rs with great aplomb.

that’s: It seems you find Rome very agreeable.

Ying Huang: Very hot, wonderful. I’m learning Italian here, actually taking classes. For my work I need to understand the culture, not just the language. How’s Shanghai?

Huang Ying and your narrator in NYCthat’s: It’s hot here, too. And wonderful. Let’s talk about performing Elijah in Shanghai last year.

YH: Did you see it? Did you like the performance?

that’s: It was an amazing performance of spiritual music. I think it was a life changing event for many in the audience who had never heard or seen Western choral music performed live. What did it mean for you to bring such a famous work to your hometown for the first time?

YH: I accepted the engagement for a number of reasons. First, I was very happy to sing in Shanghai, my home. I always want to do more things for my country, for Chinese audiences. I was also excited to work with Maestro John Nelson, not only because he’s very famous, but because he’s an expert in this early music, especially choral music. It was a very precious opportunity; he is wonderful in every way, his musicianship, his humanity. Also, Elijah was a significant event in China. It lifted our culture and brought with it a higher standard for music interpretation.

that’s: Nelson has said that composers like Bach, Mozart, Handel and others put their souls into their choral works and operas. How does it feel to sing music that meant so much to these great composers?

YH: I have been studying more of the early music, like Handel and Mozart. I like the style of this music and want to perform it with authenticity. The four operas that suit me best are The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. In the West, for the last ten years, I’ve sung these operas very often. I am trying to push the characteristics not only of the language and music, but of philosophy and culture as well. I like concentrating on Handel. His works fit my personality and spirituality. I’m happy to bring this music back to the Shanghai Opera House.

that’s: Have you sung any of these four operas in China?

YH: No, we’ve never really pinned down the dates. The good thing is that I am going to sing again in China very soon and hopefully do it more and more. Meanwhile, another good thing is that this year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, so everyone is talking about him and listening to his music.

that’s: Are you excited about your debut at the Met?

YH: Before I arrived in Rome, I was in Japan for three weeks performing Don Giovanni, and working with some of the most famous singers from the Met. We were also practising The Magic Flute, both the English and German versions; the English version will debut in a new production at the Met, where I’ll perform this New Year’s Eve. Wish me luck.

that’s: Good luck. What other projects are you working on?

YH: Most of my time this year and next will involve projects at the Met. We’ll also be working on the First Emperor by Tan Dun. I’m involved in a workshop to help develop the character I cover in the opera. It will premiere at the Met. I was invited to be the cover because they already cast the most famous Western singers, like Placido Domingo. I’m covering the part of Princess Yue-Yang and have been involved with the project since May. It seems like a Chinese year for opera. This opera will be touring around the world. The most important thing as a Chinese musician, is that I’m very proud to be in this process of the creation of this opera.

that’s: As an Asian, do people question your authenticity as an opera singer?

YH: Any kind of art is international, no matter what your native language or nationality. I don’t have any problems. I have gotten lots of praise from the Italian people, saying I sing very well. I’m very fortunate with language. I’m not being modest. Now I’m trying to learn and perfect my knowledge of Italian. I do very well as Suzana in The Marriage of Figaro. That role is the longest soprano role in the opera. I did very well in 2002 in New York. My agent from America says Italians have told him I have a perfect grasp on the language.


that’s: How long will you be studying in Italy?

YH: Until the end of August, then I’m coming to Shanghai to prepare for Messiah. I’m at the Leonardo da Vinci School in Rome. I’m here not only for the language, but also to throw myself into the culture, to learn the mentality, and [about] Italian cuisine; the food is the most basic thing, right?

that’s: At what age did you know you wanted to sing Western opera instead of Chinese?

YH: Western style opera singing is not easy, especially in China. It’s prestigious. It’s an art form. There’s still a lot of work to do to introduce classical music to Chinese audiences. I went through a difficult period in my life with a very good teacher, who recognized my talent and brought me into my field. I feel like I have a mission, a mission to do East/West cultural exchange. I have had help from a lot of people, like Shirley Young, who organized Elijah and is organizing this year’s Singing for the Future events.

that’s: Chinese knowledge of Western choral music is limited due to lack of exposure. During the intermission at last year’s performance of Elijah, I asked Shanghainese writer and music critic Zhao Lihong about his impressions of the performance. He said it was very profound and that he hoped for more world-class performances and cultural exchanges like this. What do you say to a Chinese person who isn’t familiar with Western choral and opera music?

YH: The most important thing is that, in China, we should have more educational programs of every kind, including opera.

that’s: Shanghai Opera House director Zhang Guoyong told me that Nelson’s presence last year had three important points: It improved the sound of the orchestra; it made the voices of Chinese and New York choirs sound like one, and it created a new, more receptive atmosphere. What else needs to be done?

YH: At the Shanghai Music Conservatory where I went to school, they need to train more people as young professional singers. They need to teach more languages, different languages, not just English. They should teach Italian, German, and French. I did a master class in March and I told the students: “You have to take your time if you really want to be a refined Western opera singer. You must be patient; you must learn subjects not taught in school in China. You have to learn about Western culture and history in order to introduce this to Chinese audiences”. Since I graduated in 1992, I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel all over the world. Few get to do this. We need to try to encourage people to study more.

that’s: Do students need a religious or spiritual background to understand this music?

YH: I think we all learn about ourselves through music. I am quite a spiritual person and I do not have a specific religion. Being Chinese, growing up we were influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. I don’t have a specific religion, but I do believe there is a God. I’m looking for a spiritual way to balance my life. It’s a crazy world, especially when you’re always traveling. Western people, more and more, are trying to find a spiritual path to enhance, to re-educate, to balance themselves.

that’s: And how has music influenced you on that spiritual path?

YH: It’s been my savior. I’m lucky music is my work, my profession. Every time I interpret a work, I’m in a higher state of mind. I enjoy giving to the people, and trying to enlighten them. That’s our mission as artists. I think people go to the theater to escape and forget the negative aspects of life. I keep that in mind and always try to give my best.

that’s: Speaking of profundity and spirit in music, how was it working with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters?

YH: Though I’m an opera singer, I like to experience modern music. I was lucky to get involved in his opera project Ça Ira. I learned a lot of things from him. I think he’s very creative, and very different from [the musicians] in classical music circles. It was a big project, and the first performance in Rome was spectacular. The form of his concerts was different from what I’m used to. There was a big screen on stage, a sound system — it was all very new [to me]. That’s what we need. New opportunities. New blood, new ideas. Culturally, opera needs new visions.

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