“Classical music does not belong to the West”: an interview with soprano Lei Xu

Lei Xu, photo Dario Costa Lei Xu, photo Dario Costa

Nicholas Gordon talks to Chinese operatic soprano Lei Xu, who is singing Violetta in More Than Musical’s production of La Traviata.

Classical music does not belong to the West; Western people merely discovered it.

What was your path to singing in Western opera?


I started singing seriously when I was 17. I had loved singing since I was a little girl, but I had never considered it seriously until I was in high school. I felt it was my destiny to be on stage and sing. That’s why I told my mother that I wanted to apply to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. I loved to sing pop songs before I went to Shanghai. There’s no tone-deafness in my family; everyone can sing in tune. My grandfather liked Chinese opera. My dad used to a be an amateur singer, and was a beautiful tenor when he was younger. His brother actually pursued a professional career. So my family was very supportive of my decision to be a performer and singer.

My interest in Western opera began with the education I had in my hometown. My mother used to say that if you wanted to sing, you should first learn how to sing like an opera singer and learn how to control your breath. My teacher could sing classically, and she showed me many recordings of great opera singers. I was really fascinated by Kiri Te Kanawa, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni: all the Golden Age legends. I was amazed by their sound and the emotion they could bring to the audience.


After Shanghai you went to Julliard. What was it like studying in both these places, and what were the differences between them?


My professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music asked me “are you good at your schoolwork?” After I responded with “not bad”, she replied “Then don’t work in this profession, because it’s not easy.” She liked me, but at the same time she didn’t want someone to blindly pursue this career. It’s a risky and unstable career, for women especially.

Even before I entered Julliard, I wanted to aim for the highest. At the time, just as the Internet was beginning, I only knew that Julliard was the best in the world, so that’s where I wanted to try to go. I was the first person in ten years to enter Julliard purely through the online application, instead of through an introduction. I was lucky to be noticed by Brian Zeger, the director of Julliard’s Institute for Vocal Arts.


What is the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program? What was it like to be associated with the Metropolitan Opera?


In the US, you first enter a university or music school for your training, and then you enter a “young artist program”. It’s like an apprenticeship program for artists. We got training from coaches at the Met, and we could go to any performance for free. We could even sing minor roles. Because it’s such an important opera house, they want to introduce young singers slowly, rather than put you under a lot of pressure without the proper training. I got the opportunity to work with many maestros. I had lessons with Kiri Te Kanawa, Renata Scotto and some newer singers.


What type of soprano are you? What kind of character would best fit that kind of singer?


Lei Xu in recital
Lei Xu in recital

I was once told I was a “warm lyric soprano.” I don’t really know what that means, but I think it means that I have a lyrical sound that can portray tender, very humble or very feminine characters.

When I grew up with opera, I listened to everything. I didn’t listen to one kind of music, one kind of composer because I had a really big appetite. I liked characters that I could show my emotion in. Something like La Traviata is something I really want to do, and have yet to get the chance to perform this in a big opera house. It takes time to gradually enter this kind of repertoire, as it demands a lot of physical and vocal power, acting ability, and understanding of life.

One of my mentors used to say “don’t judge your characters”.

Have there been roles you’ve found particularly memorable?


I performed a lot of Mozart roles when I was training. I did Ilia in Idomeneo, Pamina in the The Magic Flute. There are two stages to a singer’s career: one is for your technical growth, and the other is for your intelligence and dramatic growth. I think I’ve just passed the first stage, and just entering the second one. I’m very lucky to perform this Traviata, as it will let me stretch my dramatic ability.

I can’t really “identify” with a role because I think a singer must be able to sympathize with every character. One of my mentors used to say “don’t judge your characters”. We are living in a different environment than a composer two hundred years ago.


When you’re thinking about how to play a role, are you thinking about what the composer intended, or are you thinking about how to update it for a modern audience?


This is decided by the director. As long as he or she can convince me, and is making a point, then I can find it easy to connect with his or her vision.  But if I could make the choice…

I used to be a big traditionalist, because I thought opera was all about the costumes, and the luxurious feeling when you go. But later I became more “modernist.” I don’t really stick to an older mindset that says things have to be traditional. I like modern versions as well. So long as the stage gives people a sense of escape, or a world that is connected to both past and present.


Bit of an obvious question: what’s it like being a singer from China in what’s normally considered a very “Western” art form?


The first year I was at Julliard, people said to me “Oh, you must be having culture shock.” I did not understand why I would be shocked; I wasn’t shocked by New York, or anything at the time. People also asked whether I had “ambitions” for my career. I would say that I did, and then look up “ambition” in the dictionary and think “Oh, that’s what it means!” For me, it’s more like instinct. I don’t want to use my career as a tool for my own success, it’s more just fun for me. My director in this show is such a workaholic, and I can see him work all the time. But he’s always excited, and he’s always up for new ideas.

I don’t really want to separate West and East. I just like the sound, the common emotion no matter what kind of background you come from.

I think the Chinese audience is attracted to the sound first.

Has anyone in China asked what it’s like performing in a foreign art form? Or do they think it’s not strange?


They don’t ask this question. The Chinese audience is building their knowledge of Western opera and Western music. I think they are attracted to the sound first, and don’t care about the deep meaning of the text at first. It’s the emotion at the core: how the composer puts the harmony together, the pull and release of tension from the music. That’s what draws people to Western music in the first place.

China  is growing, and people have so much choice nowadays. Young kids are open to every opportunity, and they choose to do what they’re passionate about. People can afford to pursue their dreams more than before.

At Julliard, I was assigned an essay asking me to compare Western and Eastern music. I was offended by the question: you can’t really divide East and West. One of my friends said that classical music does not belong to the West; Western people merely discovered it. It echoes with everybody, and so it belongs to the human race. It should bring people together.


Have you had the opportunity to perform or contribute to works composed in China?


I am interested in modern composition, especially from the Chinese of my generation. I’ve worked with Gong Tianpeng, who composed the choral symphony for the Shanghai International Arts Festival. He is a young, upcoming artist in China, and he’s getting a lot of attention by the government. He spent his education in the States at the center of the musical and artistic world, yet he gradually decided he didn’t want to follow another person’s path, and instead compose his own music. He wanted to combine what he had learned about Western music with some Chinese folk tunes. I had sung his Ninth Symphony, and we worked with him on his Fifth Symphony as well. He puts many tunes from our childhood into the Western form, kind of like what Tchaikovsky did. People sometimes judge him for being too Western, but I really like it, and I really enjoy singing his works.

Another Chinese composer, Huang Ruo, has also supported my career. He is based in New York, and has worked with many prestigious opera houses and venues, like the Washington National Opera. He’s always tried to dedicate himself to writing about social problems, especially Asians who lived in the United States. His work is bold and provocative. I was lucky enough to sing the leading role of Diane in his opera Bound in 2014, as well as a workshop of “American Soldier” that he has just finished.

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He is a writer, editor and occasional radio host based in Hong Kong.