Why do people still sit spellbound through works of musical theatre that are dozens of decades old, written in and about times that have long passed from living memory? There is of course the music and the wonder of the unamplified voice, but opera is also, critically, about the story. There is love, passion, betrayal, pathos, death, hope. There is tension combined with, frequently, impossible choices. Our heroines are asked to choose between their families and their hearts, between a duty to country and a duty to themselves. Opera often poses universal questions—universal because there are no answers—and in that universalità there is unity.
It therefore didn’t matter that when He Hui heard her first opera, Puccini’s La Bohème, she didn’t understand a word. La Bohème is one of the most successful examples of verismo opera, which in the late nineteenth century began to deal realistically with stories of ordinary, even poor, people. As silk flower-maker Mimì introduces herself to the poet Rodolfo in his garret above Paris’s Quartier Latin—“Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” (“They call me Mimì, but I don’t why …”), she sings—this first blush of romance requires no knowledge of Italian. There is instead Mimì’s voice: beautiful, soothing and lyrical. Mimì begins her story by saying it is brief and this is the start of a love story, a fairy tale, albeit one with a tragic ending.
He Hui was 18 when she first heard opera as a student at the Conservatory in Xi’an after her own whirlwind romance with music. Just months earlier she had been a high school student preparing to graduate and move onto university. But in a serendipitous moment (all good stories seem to have at least an element of chance) a mathematics teacher caught He Hui practicing a Chinese song ahead of a school performance. It so happened that this teacher had a neighbor who was a maestro and she suggested that maybe He Hui might like to sing for him; He Hui, she said, sounded better to her than any of the maestro’s other students. Maybe, the teacher said, there is something you can do with your voice.
He Hui was intrigued. This was not the path she, like so many of her classmates, saw herself on; her parents had worked hard to provide her with a good education and the opportunity to go to university. She had also always loved music and had an ability to learn songs quickly; a song would come on the radio and she would be able to learn it immediately. But something made her want to say yes and to explore the unknown. Maybe there was something she could do with her voice.
Io seguo il mio destino…
She went to see the maestro. He was blunt; his first words to her were that it was too late to prepare for September’s intake into the conservatory; He Hui would need to spend the year studying with him and then apply for her entrance exams the following year. And then she sang.
It is difficult to describe how a voice moves you. You can describe its characteristics—timbre and pitch, certainly, but also the register and the weight. But the connection itself is not easy to put into words and sometimes it feels like the emotional pull comes from somewhere else: a voice reminds you of someone else or it stirs up sentimentality for another era or time. Perhaps the voice indicates promise, hope. Or it might evoke a memory, an image, a painting. But, in the end, when we are moved, we are moved.
The maestro was moved. In 30 years of teaching he had not heard a voice like hers.
He was also in a position to do something about it and any earlier other plans he might have had were quickly scuttled. In their place, he began a month-long regime to prepare He Hui for her entrance exams. He thought she had a good chance of being accepted for the coming year.
He Hui understood what she was up against: she was without any formal training, lacking even the basics of solfège, a system of singing notes, or even how to read music while many of the other prospective students had been studying music from a young age. As she looked at the program that lay in front of her, the difficulties were evident. But as much as she saw the practical challenge, she was also optimistic. Music had, as a hobby, brought her joy. “Gāi zěnme bàn?” she asked. “Xià yíbù gāi zěnme zǒu?” (“What should I do? What’s the next step?”)
From the maestro’s home, she thought next of how she would speak to her family. It would be a complicated conversation. Her mother was a teacher, her father, a doctor, and her father had been hoping she would follow in his footsteps, although none of his four children ended up doing so. Education was a way to something better and here she was, an 18-year old about to defy her family for the first time. Her family was a traditional one and music and the arts felt like they were part of a different world. Her father was perplexed by the decision, but in his daughter he also saw determination and after they spoke, they came to an agreement about the Conservatory. Maybe, had she yet known them, the lines from Madama Butterfly would have given her strength: “Io seguo il mio destino e piena d’umilità… È mio destino” — “Full of humility, I follow my destiny… this is my destiny”.
This music, she concluded, must have come from Heaven and not from Earth.
She entered the Conservatory in the autumn of 1990, one of just seven students accepted from five provinces. Her eyes went wide at the rows of practice rooms, at the grand stage and auditorium. There were departments for composers, for pianists, for orchestral music, folk music and, of course, singers. It was an imposing building—the music and fine art departments having been combined—and as He Hui walked around the campus as a student for the first time, she understood the opportunity that was being presented to her.
Her schedule at the Conservatory was intense—days began at 5 a.m.—with a combination of music education and advance study classes. A student at a Conservatory would typically follow a course of study that would include classes in theory, ear training, piano, phonics, music history, diction, acting, performance and how to perform as part of a chorus.
There were however still opportunities to explore different types of music. It may have happened by accident, but La Bohème’s passionate and tragic story of young love among a group of artists in Paris was a good choice as a first opera. One of the world’s most performed operas, La Bohème is, together with Aida and Carmen known as the “ABC’s” of opera, taking their moniker from the letters in their titles, but also because of their enduring popularity around the world. This unforgettable love story about passion, art, love and tragedy carries a universal appeal and He Hui was not immune. That profound experience of hearing that Mirella Freni recording—for it, she later found out, was that most Italian of Italian sopranos singing—crystalized her connection to the music, the voice and the story. It wasn’t clear how something this beautiful could exist. It must, she concluded, have come from Heaven and not from Earth.