“Un anno meraviglioso”: an interview with soprano He Hui

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2019 has been a standout year for Chinese soprano He Hui: the debut of three new roles; a successful run at the Met, including her debut Met Live in HD performance in Madama Butterfly and her 15th consecutive year (a first for a soprano) of singing at the Arena di Verona. And this weekend, He comes full circle as she returns to the Shanghai Grand Theatre, where she made her operatic debut in 1998, to perform Turandot, the Chinese princess of Puccini’s opera of the same name.

He’s journey to singing Turandot has been a cautious one. Prior to making her professional debut, Turandot was one of the first operas she saw live. Over the years, she’s been asked to perform the role, but has always—until this year—turned it down.

“I wanted to develop my repertoire first,” she said. “But now I feel the moment is right—I’m more mature and I feel the voice is ready to do Turandot. Performing it for the first time in Bologna was a wonderful experience and now to be here in Shanghai, this Turandot will also be very important and there are a lot of people waiting for this debut in China.”

Rehearsals are going well and He says although there is always the additional pressure of performing in her home country, she feels a sense of calm about a role that has often been linked to her.

Perhaps that calmness comes in part from having arrived in China (after Turandot she will perform a series of concerts across China) from New York, where she sang one of her signature roles as Cio-cio-san in another Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly. She had previously sung the role at the Met, but this time was asked to perform the role 10 times, including one for the opera house’s Live in HD performances.

“It was a beautiful and unique experience,” He said. “The performances went well, I didn’t fall ill and the audiences were happy.”

So happy in fact that she received 10 standing ovations.

“I’m happy the Met put so much trust and faith in me,” she said. “It was a beautiful time and one of the best things that could happen to me.”

 

Prior to the run at the Met, she also made her role debut as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, and her third debut of the year as Adriana Lecouvreur. She will continue to take on new roles—in April next year she will sing the title role in Verdi’s Alzira at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège—and she hopes to continue seeking out a new role or two every year.

But for now, she is focused on Turandot and her concerts from December 21 to January 8 in Wuhan, Chengdu, her hometown of Xi’an, Shenzhen, Beijing and Tianjin.

“I have a lot of strong feelings for my homeland and every time I come here, I feel a big responsibility to do well,” He said. “As a Chinese singer who has found success, I feel like I’m an example for other young Chinese singers who want to have an international career. I feel very lucky that people in China want to hear my voice so there’s a bit of stress to make sure that when I’m here, I’m at my best.”

He Hui is also aware that Chinese audiences are curious to hear a Chinese soprano sing the role of a Chinese princess.

“There’s some sentimental feelings with Shanghai,” she said. “I made my debut at this theatre for the opening of the theatre and so to be here now… I believe that it’s now my moment to sing Turandot. I have learned a lot this year and discovered a lot about my voice; 2019 was a big year for me, a significant one and really fantastic. I’m full of happiness and satisfaction and hope to discover more about music and my voice in the future.”


Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.