Shu-Ying Li describes herself modestly as just “a Chinese girl trying to be a Japanese girl.”
This week, she is at the end of a run of six performances at New York City Opera in the title role of Madama Butterfly, perhaps the most famous Japanese character in all of opera. If you look at Shu-Ying’s schedule for the past few years, you will see that Cio-Cio-San has become her calling card; she sings it everywhere from Hawaii, Texas, and Oregon to Hong Kong, Connecticut, and Japan. Fortunately, she says that more than anything else she loves singing Puccini.
The soprano, a native of Shandong, China, studied at Shanghai Conservatory and then lived and studied in New York for seven years; she now makes Shanghai her home when she is not on the road. When in New York, she studies with Ruth Falcon, one of the city’s most prominent voice teachers, and she has coached the role with one of its most famous interpreters: Renata Scotto.
In part 2 of the interview, Shu-Ying talks to Jennifer Melick about her favorite singers, what it’s like being halfway around the world from home, the opera business in China, and what it’s like singing Cio-Cio-San in Japan.
Jennifer Melick: So you lived in New York for seven years, but you have moved back to Shanghai. What is it like for you when you come to New York now?
Shu-Ying Li: Back when I lived here, I subletted an apartment. This time around I am staying with a friend who has an apartment in the Bronx, which is great. There is a piano where I can practice.
Jennifer Melick: Your English is excellent. Where did you learn to speak so well?
Shu-Ying Li: From the people everywhere when I travel; from television; and from magazines. At first I didn’t understand, but gradually I began to learn. For that first performance in Budapest, in rehearsal, I had a translator. I do get lost sometimes, but I try to follow as much as I can. I went to Italy a couple of times just to study. Because language is so important for me as an opera singer, I have to be able to understand. My English is poor, perhaps, but I can communicate! I wish I could study more. Or have more time to, but there is never enough time to study as much as you want.
Jennifer Melick: So you are going back to Shanghai soon after these Butterfly performances?
Shu-Ying Li: Yes, I go back to Shanghai, and I have two concerts there. After that, the people from Cincinnati Opera are coming to hear me [onstage as Butterfly] tomorrow. If they like me … so we will see. Otherwise, I will study my Manon Lescaut to prepare for my next gig in Hawaii. And after Hawaii, I am going to make my debut with Florida Grand Opera to sing six performances of Butterfly. I am very excited to go to Miami! [Laughs]. I never went to Miami before. I am excited for that.
Jennifer Melick: What is it like for you singing this role so often?
Shu-Ying Li: Whenever I sing Cio-Cio San, when I get home that night, it is a night of insomnia. It is like my heart is always hurting for a day afterward. So I take it very easy the day after to relax more. It is hard to sing this kind of heartbreaking role. It does take a lot of pieces of my heart, really.
Cio-Cio San, she married as a 15-year-old. She doesn’t know anything specific. She learned what she knows about America from the movies, by things somebody told her. Like many teenagers, her energy level is very high. That’s another thing about this role: you have to always remember you are a teenager and not an adult. Until the last moment, when she wants to kill herself, and then she is really more than adult!
I think Puccini is the composer that I love the most. His music, when I first heard it in China, I cried. I didn’t even know what the words meant—I just cried like a baby. The music touched my soul. Puccini—really, I know he understood women, like Suor Angelica, like Mimi, like Cio-Cio San—he really knows human beings, their emotions, love, it is just like people. He understands what’s inside of me and you.
Jennifer Melick: Butterfly is young and strong-willed. Mimi is also young, also poor, but completely different in character.
Shu-Ying Li: Butterfly is very sympathetic. For Mimi, it’s like a sweetness, it’s different, it’s the sweetness, it’s the softness. Butterfly is strong, demanding.
Jennifer Melick: She knew what she wanted.
Shu-Ying Li: Yes. Mimi knows, too. But with Mimi, it is soft. It is so sweet. When I sing Mimi, I have to feel happiness. Because Rodolfo is with me when I die. I can die happy, peaceful. I am dying in front of my love. But Butterfly, like in this production—she never can see her love again. So it’s a different kind of feeling.
Singing Suor Angelica–I love this opera so much, but that’s another like Butterfly–singing it just about kills me! Even worse than Butterfly. That opera can break your heart.
Jennifer Melick: You mentioned in a number of instances using movies to help learn about a role. Are you a movie buff?
Shu-Ying Li: I like film a lot. I’ve liked movies since I was very young. Whenever I sing, I rent a film—a classical film. I just love watching it. I like to read. But mostly I read in Chinese. It’s hard for me to read English. Sometimes it is not comfortable. But I do like to watch movies—Italian movies or French movies—when they have subtitles.
Recently, I watched that movie There Will be Blood. I couldn’t stop thinking about that movie for one week. I was thinking about this man played by Daniel Day-Lewis. He is so strong. It is so real, it is not an act. I am still looking forward to seeing the movie La Vie en Rose. I will see it on DVD. And Juno, that is a fun movie.
Jennifer Melick: Do you have a favorite singer?
Shu-Ying Li: So many singers are my favorites. Each person has his own vision – to show the human emotion, and each singer does that in his own way. But I do have a favorite soprano: Renata Tebaldi. She is the best. I’ve never heard her live. I only have her CDs. I listen to her all the time. For male singers, I love Luciano Pavarotti. I went to his performances at the Met when I came to this country—three times. I heard him in Tosca, in Aida, and the Three Tenors concert. By the time he sang the first note, I went [indicates starting to cry]. I think that kind of voice can touch your soul. It touched my soul. I think Pavarotti is the kind of a singer who doesn’t need to move his hand or body. It is the voice by itself that you come to hear. I will never forget those three performances, even though by that time he was at the end of his career. But I still felt so lucky to be able to hear him live onstage. When I was in China, I listened to his CDs all the time, it is so natural. There is nothing to decorate. Nothing to try to make it happen, which is something that happens very often.
Jennifer Melick: Is there any way that your family in China could see this telecast of Madama Butterfly that is being telecast from New York City Opera?
Shu-Ying Li: They could buy a DVD, of course, and I could show them. Even my voice teacher said, “Could you buy me a DVD so I can see?” I said, “Yes, of course, I will try my best.” They are very excited for me.
Jennifer Melick: Do they travel at all to see you?
Shu-Ying Li: No. [Briefly on the verge of tears, she pauses to compose herself.] I don’t like thinking about this, but every time I do, I feel so guilty. I feel so sorry that my family cannot see me, that I am not there. We always talk on the phone. I talk to them about what I am doing, and they are proud of me, of course. I am still looking forward to their being able to come to see me perform abroad, and my dream is to sing more often in China—actually, to bring this production of Butterfly to China. Yesterday I talked to the Chinese consulate. I asked if it is possible to bring this production to China. They are interested.
Jennifer Melick: Do the opera houses in China hire singers three and four years in advance, like the bigger opera houses in the U.S. and Europe?
Shu-Ying Li: No, it is scheduled completely differently there, like two or three months! [Laughs]. It is really crazy.
Jennifer Melick: Why do you think that is?
Shu-Ying Li: I think we still have to learn, because in China everything is so “present.” We never really plan that far ahead. When we have money, we do it right away. If we don’t have money, we don’t plan the two years after that. This is why, because opera is still so new, even for the sponsor, we don’t have lots of sponsorship like here [in America]. Here you have certain monies to support this opera house. In China, we don’t. When they have the money, when they have the right person to do it, they will do it.
We have beautiful opera houses in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. A new one just opened in Beijing—it is world-class. The new theater that just opened is like a big egg. The acoustics are phenomenal.
Jennifer Melick: When New York City Opera toured Japan, you sang Cio-Cio San then.
Shu-Ying Li: Yes, that was my debut!
Jennifer Melick: So what was the reaction of the audience in the country where this opera is set?
Shu-Ying Li: I remember when I sang this for the Nagoya theater, and that night we had a full house. The tickets were sold out, and they were so quietly sitting there, all the Japanese, I was a little bit nervous. They were very polite. The applause was polite, it was nice, but as it went along, you could see they were getting into the opera. At the end, when we finished the whole show, we all went onstage, and people clapped so long. They just stood and kept applauding for a long time. They are not like here, shouting. It is a different style, they just don’t want to leave. You can feel they really loved the opera. That’s quite an experience. I was a little bit nervous because I am Chinese, not Japanese. I was trying to think like a Japanese girl. [Giggles].
Missed part 1? Click here to read about how Shu-Ying Li got her start, what she loves about Mark Lamos’ current production at City Opera, how she used to play hooky in kindergarten, what she does to look like and act like a realistic Japanese teenager, and roles she plans to sing in the future.