Opera travels well. Its stories are the stories of our collective humanity—love, loss, revenge, strife, rebellion, rejuvenation, absurdity, tragedy—and its archetypes not only define cultures but also connect them. In many respects, we can no longer speak in essentializing ways about Western opera or Chinese opera, but rather must address the world of opera and global operatic voices.
But what of its performers? What does it mean to think and feel and dream and sing in a language not one’s own, on a foreign stage, in a foreign land, under a foreign sky? For people and cultures in transit, the self is understood as neither fixed nor certain, but mutable and contingent. If you are a Western reader, then imagine for a moment boarding a plane to Shanghai with little cultural knowledge of China and virtually no ability to speak or understand Mandarin. In the absence of familiar salves of continent, city, country and society, the architecture of music imbues the opera singer with a familiar sense of movement, balance and scale within unfamiliar surroundings.
In Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera, Melanie Ho offers an absorbing and spirited account of the life and art of the contemporary Chinese soprano He Hui. Born in 1972 in Xi’an, the Tang dynasty capital renowned for its terra cotta warriors, He’s “journey to the West” was a circuitous, and fortuitous, one. Although she planned to attend university, by chance a high school math teacher overheard her practicing a Chinese song for an upcoming school performance and suggested that she sing for a neighbor of hers, who happened to be a maestro. Although he initially rebuffed her, the maestro was quickly won over once He started singing. Ho describes with sensitivity the indefinable, almost intuitive appeal of He’s distinctive voice, which continues to captivate its listeners:
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.
As with many artists, He’s career has been marked by an admixture of talent, hard work, dedication and good fortune. Having first heard opera (Puccini’s La Bohème) as an eighteen-year-old student at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music, she graduated at the top of her class and transitioned into teaching. Soon thereafter she had another break, this one in 1998, when the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival was invited to open the Shanghai Grand Theatre and He was selected for the role of the Ethiopian princess Aida in Verdi’s eponymous opera.
It was the 2000 Operalia Competition, however, that “provided He Hui with the credentials she needed to launch her career.” She performed onstage in Shanghai with Plácido Domingo, and later in Los Angeles, which garnered the attention of the Italian opera world. There followed frequent trips between Verona and Shanghai, with He landing the title role in Tosca. Ho’s compelling account captures the joys and consternation facing He in this role, where “she was a Chinese newcomer playing an Italian diva.”
Although unknown (and indeed unknowable) to her at the time, such formative successes would later yield a rich and highly-regarded operatic career with a focus on operas by Verdi and Puccini. Remarkably, He counts over 150 performances altogether as the lead in Aida and as Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly, and at least 100 performances as Floria Tosca. She is also the first Chinese performer to sing Tosca at La Scala and Aida in Vienna’s Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Given the differences in vocal techniques between traditional Chinese opera and Western bel canto singing, He performs the latter exclusively. While speaking at an October 2017 Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club event in her honor, He was asked by the Club’s then vice president (now its current president) Florence de Changy about her relationship to Chinese music. According to He, her studies and vocal training—even as a young conservatory student in Xi’an—focused entirely on arias and Lieder. As a result, she has never sung traditional Chinese opera.
Despite her trailblazer status, He is part of a tradition of Chinese sopranos singing Western opera that dates to the first half of the 20th century. In his 2013 article for the China Daily, Raymond Zhou suggested that a December 24, 1956 all-Chinese production of La Traviata staged by the China National Opera House at the Tianqiao Theater in Beijing as being “the very first Western opera on a Chinese stage.” However, as Chun-zen Huang had previously demonstrated in his 1997 PhD dissertation, Traveling Opera Troupes in Shanghai, 1842-1949, Chinese singers had in fact first performed Western opera as early as 1937, when the Shanghai Opera House staged a production of Rigoletto that featured two Chinese singers. Western productions in China of operas by Offenbach, Weber and Lecocq date as early as 1876.
Ho’s compact and engaging volume offers an ideal introduction to one of the most significant and successful sopranos to have emerged from China in recent years. Her choice of title is a reference to the 16th-century novel Journey to the West (西遊記), which ranks as one of the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese literature. According to Ho, the title is “a literary description of the book’s narrative, but it also references a story of traveling outside one’s geographical and cultural comfort zone in order to learn new things.” Stylistically, Ho possesses the deft touch of a passionate connoisseur, by turns graceful, informed and celebratory.
Journey to the West is the first volume from Abbreviated Press, a newly-formed publishing house aiming to offer an immersive, condensed literary experience, one that is “the reading equivalent of going to the theatre,” as publisher Peter Gordon put it to me in an email. Such momentary pleasures are welcome interludes amidst the many colonizers of our time.
If all art aspires to the condition of music, then He Hui’s triumphant journey into the international world of Western opera reflects a life lived artfully. And yet adjuncts of cultural identity eventually yield to something far more elemental and intangible—the archetypal experience of hearing another’s voice. Although the music might be by Verdi or Puccini, we are lured into the ecstasies of the sublime by a singular voice that somehow manages to capture the pleasures and pains as well as the absurdity and euphoria of what it means to be human. As Ho puts it, “in the end, when we are moved, we are moved.”
Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel. Reprinted with permission.