8 mins reading

— By Jinghua Qian 

As one of the world’s most celebrated sopranos, Hui He’s lauded operatic talents have taken her and her audiences to unexpected heights. Here, the Chinese-born vocalist reminisces about the trail she has blazed on the way.

Hui He didn’t grow up wanting to become an opera singer. But while it wasn’t her childhood dream, the world-renowned soprano now feels certain that opera was always her destiny. “The first time I listened to opera, even though I couldn’t understand a word of Italian and didn’t know anything about the art form, I heard part of Puccini’s La bohème and I just fell in love with it,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand the words, but I was moved to tears. It felt like a whole new world had opened up to me.”

At the time, He was 18 years old, and had just started her studies at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music, in the capital of China’s Shaanxi province where she grew up. She had always liked singing but was a timid child. That’s hard to imagine now, as she regularly faces crowds of thousands in the world’s most celebrated opera houses. During our conversation, He projects confidence, poise and selfassuredness, though as a child she was shy and scared of singing in public.

By happy accident, He performed at a school concert in her final year of high school. Her maths teacher pulled her aside afterwards to pay a compliment, comparing her to the famous Chinese soprano Yin Xiumei. The teacher’s neighbour happened to be a voice coach. “I think your voice is better than my neighbour’s students’,” the teacher told her, encouraging her to apply to the conservatory.

There was only one month to prepare for the audition, but He impressed the panel with her renditions of Chinese folk songs and the Soviet-era Russian song Katyusha. Once she was admitted, her teachers insisted that her voice was perfect for bel canto and sent her off to the library to research Italian opera. That set her on her life’s journey.

“Since then, I’ve devoted everything to opera,” she says. “You know, in Chinese conservatories there’s Chinese opera, folk music, popular music and so on. But I always went for bel canto, unlike some students who switch from one form to another, because my sound seemed to be a natural fit.”

Though He’s family was initially sceptical of her choice of career, they came around when they witnessed her commitment to the craft. “I was always in either my dorm or the library,” she recalls. “Some of the other students had studied music for many years, whereas it was new to me. I was very sure of my choice.”

When He graduated in 1994, she struggled to find the spotlight at first. “As a young soprano, I didn’t know what my future would be. I didn’t get much recognition in China, I didn’t win competitions,” she says.

The big break came in 1998, upon making her mainstage debut in Verdi’s Aida, in a landmark Italian and Chinese co-production at Shanghai Grand Theatre. The production ran with two casts—one Italian and one Chinese—and He was cast by directors from Florence after auditions in Beijing and Shanghai. “I was very young, so to choose me as Aida was so special. It’s unusual for someone so young to play Aida because it’s a very difficult role,” she says. “But when I was young, my voice was very special for pianissimo with high notes, with filatura. I could naturally achieve these technically difficult parts— of course I had learned a lot from my teachers too, but Aida suited me very well.”

It’s a part that He would go on to perform 170 times through her illustrious career, including a long stretch at the Arena di Verona, a 2000-year-old amphitheatre that is one of the largest and oldest open-air theatres in the world. “It’s a rite of passage because all the most important singers have performed there,” she says. “I’m very lucky that I was able to perform there for 16 consecutive years—the only soprano to perform there for so long, with multiple roles each year.

“[Singing] Aida is different there because it’s open-air, with nearly 20,000 seats. Your voice has to be really strong because there’s no microphone. There’s a danger of damaging your voice; you can’t push too hard. You need your pianissimo to be clear to all 20,000 patrons. It’s very demanding as an artist,” she explains.

In Verona, He cemented her lifelong association with Verdi and Puccini, and particularly with the characters of Aida, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, each of which she has played over 100 times. She insists she does not have a favourite. “Each one is a classic, and each one takes me into a different world,” she says. “Madama Butterfly, because it’s an Asian character, she’s more relatable. To me she is pure and gentle, but also strong. Tosca is very ardent, an archetypal Italian character. Aida is also complex. All these characters are complex, double characters; there’s warmth and tenderness, as well as pain and tragedy, even hopelessness.”

Nowadays, He keeps residences in both Verona and Beijing, though most of her year is spent jet-setting between opera houses in all corners of the globe. Her home is often left empty. It’s a strange life, constantly being on the move, while trying to preserve your voice and protect your health so you can perform to exacting standards. In some ways, it seems a relic of a bygone world.

“It’s an unusual group of people and a small, specialised group. There are probably fewer than 1000 people around the world who sing lead parts at major opera houses,” He says.

Even after a quarter century on the stage, she says her performance is forever changing as she absorbs the expertise of her colleagues; “The music is always the same, but the emotion is different.” She continues: “Every single performance is different. Working with different directors and singers, they give you different feedback. The conductor’s tempo, the director’s choices and interpretation, they all change your performance.”

During her career, He has worked with luminaries such as director Franco Zeffirelli and famed tenor Plâcido Domingo, whom she first met in 2000 when she won second prize in his International Operalia Competition in Los Angeles. He later played her father in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

She notes the distinctions between opera audiences in different parts of the world. “In Italy, the voice is the most important. If the voice is not the Italian way, the audience is more critical. The singing comes first,” she suggests. “In Germany, they are more critical of the production and stage direction. Audiences come for the director’s interpretation and concept, and a lot of German directors take an avant-garde, contemporary approach.” But it’s never one or the other; the opera singer’s task is always to balance music and drama, and to deliver a spectacle that saturates the audience’s eyes and ears with magnificence.

Most important, He says, is simply getting people through the door to experience the magic for themselves. “For classical music, the audience just needs to be there to get a taste of it. It’s an international language; you don’t need to understand every word. You just need to step into the theatre to feel it, to let the emotion move you and to let the performance touch you,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a symphony or an opera, though I think singing is more direct because the sound is coming straight from the soul. But for audiences, the most important thing is just for them to come into the theatre. Listening to a CD or a recording is not the same as being there.”

In China today, classical music enjoys immense popularity, and many audiences find their way to concert halls because their children are learning an instrument. Public appreciation and enthusiasm for the art form have also fed a pipeline of talent. “China has produced many important classical musicians, some from very ordinary families who are now in major world orchestras,” she explains. “I don’t think music is divided by nations or races. I believe music is a gift from the heavens.”