Opera Gazet

„La mia regina, you sang wonderful!“ said Montserrat Caballé to her once after a masterclass. The world famous soprano talked about Guanqun Yu, a young Chinese soprano.

Yu was born in 1982 as the only daughter of a shop assistant and a road engineer, and growing up in the small province of Shandong. Her parents had no interest in classical music at all. However, Yu played accordion, but found singing to be more fun. She decided to become a music teacher. At the college, she accidentally listened to a recording of Carmen (Baltsa/Carreras), and was fascinated by that kind of music she had never been exposed to before. She wanted to find out more about opera and went to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. There she met her mentors, Fugen Wei, a downright opera lover who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years, and Madame Zhou Xiaoyan, a famous vocal coach, and soprano (nickname: “Chinese nightingale”) who was known for making Western opera popular in China. Those two people encouraged Yu to become a professional opera singer.

While Yu won a scholarship and spent some time in Italy to study the language for the Italian operatic roles, she got her first singing engagements as a member of the Young Artists programme in Bologna. Her professional debut was Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo. After winning the International Belvedere Singing Competition in 2008, and the second price at Plácido Domingo’s “Operalia” in 2012, she debuted at the MET in New York as Leonora in Il trovatore in 2012, and later returned as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. She also sang in Nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Pagliacci, Stiffelio, Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, Otello, La Bohème, Turandot (Bregenz Festival), and others.

On August 11th and 14th, 2017, she will sing the role of Lucrezia Contarini in I due Foscari at the Salzburg Festival, alongside Plácido Domingo as Father, and Joseph Calleja as Son Foscari.

One week before the first performance, Guanqun granted Opera Gazet an exclusive interview, talking about her career, her challenges, and the upcoming performance, in which she steps in for an ill Maria Agresta on a short notice.

When were you informed about your singing in Salzburg? And how was your reaction?

“Only one month ago. I was excited and concerned at the same time. I got the call and had one day to make my decision, which was a hard one. I was about to go on holidays to China, after being away from home for almost two years. Actually, I did not really want to sing that role again. I wanted to focus more on lyric roles. But then, it is my job. And, after all, it is an honour to sing with Plácido Domingo and Joseph Calleja at the famous Salzburg Festival.”

Why didn’t you want to sing it anymore?

“I sang it once, in Valencia in 2013, also together with Plácido, but it really gave me troubles. I had stomach problems after finishing it. It is a killer role. It’s not that you have two, three arias to concentrate on, and then you can relax. It is a challenge from the very beginning to the very end that takes all your energy, and a highly skilled voice. You have to give all – with hardly a break. But my mentor encouraged me to do it. I now consider it as kind of ‘learning process’; it helps me to even better figure out the abilities of my voice. So I accepted.”

Talking about Plácido Domingo: You participated in his Operalia competition. How was it?

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime-experience. We learned a lot during that period, found new friends, and got to know many people from various opera houses. It was definitely an essential moment for my career. From then on it developed pretty well, I got engagements and calls from all around the world.”

If you remember your first appearance at the MET in “Il Trovatore” in 2012 – how did it feel?

“It was great, of course. To sing on stage of that world famous opera house is the dream of every singer. But I remember also quite tough moments at the MET, too. For example, in the 2013-2014 season, before my official debut as Fiordiligi in Cosí fan tutte, I was called to step in for an ill soprano in the same role. I did not know that I would not have much time for rehearsals, but I went, anyway. When I arrived, I learned that I had only 15 minutes of rehearsal on stage with Maestro Levine. But it went quite well, anyway. I was happy.”

Which is your favourite role?

“It’s always the role that I am currently singing. You have to love it, otherwise you can’t do it properly. But Mimi in La Bohème is one of my dearest roles, because it is about pure, ‘naked’ love.”

Do you have any singer idol?

“I adore Maria Callas! She simply knew perfectly how to form a phrase, and she passionately lived for opera with every fibre of her body. She sang with her heart, and her soul, even if the voice sometimes turned out sort of ‘ugly’ – it was a natural part of hers. She was the ‘complete package’. Also, I love Anna Netrebko for the same reason.”

Both of them big stars of their time. What about young singers these days? Which challenges do they face, what’s the most difficult thing at the beginning of their careers?

“It’s making a living! Young singers have to struggle to get contracts. Without an agent, it would almost be impossible. And even when they get an engagement, they have to wait until they get paid. In some cases, opera houses wait for even two years, before they pay them. But the singers have to pay for their travels, for accommodations, dresses/suits, and they have to eat something. It is really hard, especially since there are so many good young singers out there. I am lucky these days, but many of my colleagues are not …”

Is there any characteristic trait a young singer should have to succeed?

“In any case: being insisting. Even if times are difficult, challenges are high – you must not keep your aim out of view. Focus on your aim, and go ahead. Do not give up.”

You are one of few Chinese singers who made it to international stages. Do you think it’s more difficult for singers from China to build up an international career than it is for Western singers?

“For me, it definitely was, due to the differences in culture, and language. As for languages, we not only have to learn how to speak it, but also learn completely new letters, characters, with different pronunciations in different languages. As for the culture: we were trained from early childhood on not to show any emotion. We are asked to hide passion and feelings. But on the opera stage, you can only succeed, if you are a credible singer, and actor! You need to play and sing full of emotions, otherwise you will not be convincing. I always try to adjust to Western culture, watch many films, and talk to a lot of Western people, in order not to fall back into my old Chinese education.”

What was the funniest or most dangerous moment for you in an opera?

“The funniest was during a dress rehearsal for “Nozze”. I was sitting on a bed, and Figaro came in. He had to jump onto my bed – which totally broke all of a sudden. Luckily, nobody was injured, so we had a good laugh about that. Another funny thing was, when we had a performance with a very grumpy, angry conductor. One of my soprano colleagues had a little dog, always accompanying her, his name was “Maestro”. After the performance, all singers wanted to have dinner together. My soprano friend said, “Oh yes, let’s go. I just need to pick up Maestro, then we can leave.” And one tenor replied, with a very strong expression of displeasure in his face, “But, but, but … whyyyyyyyyyyyyy Maestro?”

“The most dangerous was during Otello in Valencia. The stage was a giant mirror, 5 metres above the ground, and horizontally inclined. The idea, and the staging by David Livermore were really exciting. I did not have any rehearsal in that setting, though. When Desdemona goes to her bedroom (on that mirror) in the final act, I had only socks on! It was so slippery, and I was scared I could slip down and fall off. It was totally under stress in that scene. Also, sitting on one edge of the mirror, with my legs hanging down, did not help much to relax.”

Talking about staging – what is your opinion about modern ‘Regietheater’

“Well, there are some modern stagings that might work well. La Traviata in Salzburg some years ago with Villazon and Netrebko was one of those. But then there are others which have nothing to do with the opera anymore. It is very difficult for us singers to stand our grounds there, because you cannot ‘feel with the character’, when the reason for the feelings was taken away or changed to the opposite. We sometimes feel like “accessories”, like pieces of furniture that are just necessary for realising the stage director’s ideas. Unfortunately, many of us have no choice, if they want to survive … stage directors have a lot of power these days. There were the belcanto days, when the singer was the most important person of an opera; then there came days when the conductor seemed to be the most important; nowadays, the stage directors seem to lead …”

Some private details about you?

“I have a boyfriend from Germany, who is a conductor and organist. It’s difficult for artists, though. We are so often separated. My hobbies, beside opera, are cooking, and watching films. My motto for life is, “Stay positive every day, because the day does not come back, and you missed the opportunity to enjoy it.”

What are your plans for the future?

“As for my repertoire, I want to do more lyric, and Mozart roles, less heroines. Also, as a Christian, I would love to do more concerts with spiritual background. One day, if I will no longer be able, or in the mood to sing, I want to return to China, and help young opera singers there to live and fulfil their dreams, just as mine are now fulfilling. I want to give something back for whatever I got from destiny.”