An Opera Singer Speaks

Angel statue on the Paris Opera. Photo:

Opera singer Yang Guang was born in Beijing and graduated from China's Central Conservatory in 1996, where she later returned to teach. Also a graduate of the opera department at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, Yang was the first Chinese singer to receive the prestigious BBC Singer of the World Award in Cardiff. After signing with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2002, she quickly rose to stardom on the international operatic scene. Her credits include Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the Welsh National Opera, Hécube in Berlioz’ Les Troyens with the London Symphony Orchestra led by Sir Colin Davis, and Verdi’s Requiem with the National Symphony Orchestra. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband. She spoke to Kaleidoscope , the weekly arts program broadcast by RFA's Mandarin service:

Learning from scratch

"Art is about appreciating beauty. It’s hard to say exactly what art is, and there is a standard that evolves over time... Asians are generally more reserved, so you have to learn the Western way from the ground up. I knew only five words of English when I first arrived in the States, and I knew I had to at least learn the very basics. So, I tried to perceive myself as a newborn learning everything from ground zero. I just listened and tried to imitate. It’s the same in singing."

"I believe you need to have the right mindset when learning anything. It’s like the saying, 'There’s no age limit for learning new things.' So, as long as you have a youthful mindset, you will always be able to learn. That feeling when you manage to learn something new is very rewarding. For me to be able to render an English sentence without much thought is as rewarding as winning first prize at Cardiff and in Plácido Domingo’s Operalla Competition in Washington D.C. In everyday life, I am able to indulge in that feeling whenever I discover new things or experience an enlightened moment."

In a new market, image matters

What is a gift? It is an ability bestowed by God. I am humbled by that, because it could have been given to anyone.

"My motto is 'Never give up.' Now that I’m in my 30s, I finally understand what my father used to tell me: 'You will have succeeded in leading an incredible life when you accomplish what you set out to do.'... My curiosity motivates me to dig deeper into the problem to find a solution. I also have to resist the temptation to give up or choose an alternate route to make things easier. I am not one to admit failure."

"The money earned is just a salary for the work I perform. The audience's applause is an appreciation of my gift. What is a gift? It is an ability bestowed by God. I am humbled by that because it could have been given to anyone... I don’t like the word 'successful' because what is truly a success? Everyone has his or her definition of success. It is variable. If I'm not chosen for a role, I get frustrated, but I understand that it's not because I sang badly. It’s just that I didn’t fit what they were looking for."

"Times are changing. In the past, it didn't matter what you looked like; all you needed was a good voice. But now, image is everything. I try my best to fit in, because the market demands it."

"You have to do your homework and be well-prepared for everything at an audition. You also need to build up your resume. I now realize how lacking in experience I was at the beginning of my career. You need to focus all your energy on polishing your skills."

Cultural immersion

"You have to immerse yourself in the environment that fits your purpose or goal in life. Because we lack exposure to bourgeois culture in China, I would never be able to understand my audience's tastes if I’d decided to work at a restaurant part-time just to make ends meet in the beginning, or if I went into business now. You can’t excel in what you do if your energy is divided."

"My father was against me applying for an art and music school after junior high. He told me that economic power ruled over political power. Because I still depended on him for shelter and food, I applied for a vocational school that specialized in textile manufacturing. Fortunately, the school had very good extra-curricular programs in the performing arts. After I graduated, my colleagues at the factory gave me tremendous encouragement, which I will never forget. Without their support, there would be no Yang Guang, the opera singer, today."

Restrictive environment in China

"The environment or culture that Chinese people grow up in consists of too many restrictions and oppressions. It’s hard to place the blame on anyone, because it is so deep-rooted in our culture. People who control you are controlled by others above them. They don’t know how to act otherwise, because that’s all they know. So, it’s very homogenizing. Opera to me is a way for us to express ourselves by exploring our human limits and consciousness."

"...Language and music are inseparable. That’s why singers need to be very accurate in word and tone, so the authenticity of a piece of music isn't lost."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Mo. Translated by Amanda Ng-Fujimoto. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han


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