Shu-Ying Li modestly describes herself as just “a Chinese girl trying to be a Japanese girl.”
This week, she wraps up a run of six performances at the New York City Opera in the title role of Madama Butterfly, perhaps the most famous Japanese character in all of opera. Over the past few years, Cio-Cio San has become Shu-Ying Li’s calling card; she sings it everywhere from Hawaii, Texas, and Oregon to Hong Kong, Connecticut, and Japan. Fortunately, she says she never gets tired of singing it.
The soprano, a native of Shandong, China, studied at Shanghai Conservatory and then lived and studied in New York for seven years. These days, she lives in Shanghai when she is not on the road performing. When in New York, she studies with Ruth Falcon, one of the city’s most prominent voice teachers, and she has coached the role of Cio-Cio San with one of its most famous interpreters: Renata Scotto.
Last Thursday, over lunch at Rosa Mexicana restaurant (right across the street from the New York City Opera stage door), Shu-Ying talked to Jennifer Melick about how she 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.
Jennifer Melick: What was your first professional opera role?
Shu-Ying Li: My first professional role was after I won second prize in the Budapest International Voice Competition. I was hired to sing two performances in La Bohème at the Budapest Opera. Musetta—not Mimì. I only knew Chinese at the time! I did not speak any other language. But I performed the whole opera. I had a translator to help during rehearsals, at least. I could watch the people, see what the director was telling me to do, and the music just moved me around. It is such a great memory for me. At that time, I thought, “Wow, that is the world I am looking for!” All I wanted, more than anything else, was to be an opera singer. Those were the performances that got me started. I made my American debut in New York in March 1999 when I came to sing at a Metropolitan Museum concert called Asian Voices. A gentleman who supports many aspiring Asian opera singers sponsored the concert. So he changed my life—he brought me from Shanghai to New York. There were fifteen singers in this one concert! They came from Japan, Korea, and China.
Jennifer Melick: Do you do a lot of recitals?
Shu-Ying Li: I am starting to now. Mainly in China. In China today, there are many young opera singers, and as a singer I have to remember to share everything that I have.
Jennifer Melick: You are also teaching in Shanghai now.
Shu-Ying Li: Yes, I’m now on the faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory. This is where you train to become a Western opera singer. I was not trained as an opera singer as early as some. Back when I was in school, I was originally training to become a singer of Chinese folk songs. But I had a wonderful voice teacher in Shanghai, Zhou Xiaoyan [director of the Zhou Xiaoyan Opera Center at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]. I learned some of the Cio-Cio San role in Butterfly. I auditioned for the part and they offered me the role of Butterfly. I accepted because I really wanted to do this, but I did not have a clue what this role would cost! I just said, “Yes!” At the time, Maestra [Renata] Scotto was giving a master class in Shanghai. She saw me and said, “I want to teach you this role.” I went with her to study a couple times. She taught me where to look, how to move, the music’s style, etc. She gave me a lot of things.
Luckily, I have the best voice teacher—Ruth Falcon. I have studied with her for three years. She taught me everything about Butterfly’s vocals. Maestra Scotto taught me everything else about the role. Because of Ruth and Maestra Scotto, I was in very good shape, vocally, when I coached the Butterfly role. I have to learn not to give too much in the first act or I won’t have anything left by the end. Even now, it’s still very important to know how to pace myself. At the beginning I have to be so, so happy. And then so sad at the end. And I have to remember not to not give too much, either. To get the right balance.
Jennifer Melick: Are there any other musicians in your family?
Shu-Ying Li: No. My father was an engineer, and my mother worked in the silk business. Growing up, we always had lots of silk in the house. When I was in kindergarten, my two brothers and I didn’t always want to go to school. Sometimes, as soon as our parents left for work, we’d stay home and put on plays for ourselves, using the silks for costumes and sets.
I knew, even from the time I was five years old, that I wanted to be a singer. When I was asked at that time what I wanted to be when I grew up, I immediately answered that I wanted to sing. Adults were surprised that this was what I wanted to do because it wasn’t necessarily considered something that could actually be a career, a job.
Jennifer Melick: At this point in your career, you’ve done so many productions of Madama Butterfly. In addition to the Mark Lamos production here at New York City Opera, which other ones stand out in your memory?
Shu-Ying Li: The one I did last year with the Hawaii Opera, in Honolulu—that one was also unforgettable. It’s an Opera Omaha production by a very famous Japanese sculpture artist, Jun Kaneko. The costumes and the staging are minimalist, but the color—it’s incredible. I really enjoyed the use of the modern technique to create the whole atmosphere. For the New York City Opera, I also did the old production of Butterfly. I really liked that one. Of course, all my friends love this current production at City Opera by Mark Lamos. I love this production too.
Jennifer Melick: The spareness of Mark Lamos’s production is strikingly beautiful—the huge red sun, the steps, the sky, the huge sliding doors. What do you like about performing in it?
Shu-Ying Li: It is the space. In China, this kind of art is our history. We had it for a long time. At the Peking Opera you can have just the one table, two chairs, and make the design from that. When I came to this country and saw this kind of a production, I got very excited. You can really make the stage come to life. For us—for actors—we have to really bring the audience into this production to make it meaningful. I am very excited this time around to be in this Mark Lamos production.
I also love that I have such a great cast. Tyler Christopher Backer [the boy who plays Cio-Cio San's son]—he is so comfortable. He communicates with me. When I sing a sad song for him in the second act, and I look at his eyes, they are so soft. And then when Suzuki and I sing the flower duet, he is so cheerful. He is just phenomenal, this kid.
Jennifer Melick: The Met made a stir a few years back when Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly used puppets rather than a child actor to play that part.
Shu-Ying Li: That is a new thing for everybody, even for me. But for me, personally, I prefer human beings directly communicating. It’s more touching, more real.
Jennifer Melick: How do you prepare dramatically to become Cio-Cio San? She is a Japanese teenager in an Italian opera.
Shu-Ying Li: When I am doing Butterfly, I watch the body gestures of all the Japanese people who walk on the street. I watch Japanese movies. For instance, when [Japanese girls] laugh [she indicates the gesture of covering the mouth when laughing]. That is still very common. Even in China, when I was a little girl or a teenager, when my friends and I were laughing, we would cover our mouths. And you cannot smile and show your teeth. It’s—it’s more humble. I love modern American culture—Western culture—people are so direct. For me as an actress it is important. It doesn’t matter which: if I am singing Mimi, the hand gesture has to be French. The movements have to be very fluid. I am always looking for this in movies. I read books and I learn what women were thinking at that time. I learn their body gestures. For this production, though, Cio-Cio San is a Japanese woman, and even though I am a Chinese girl, I am very absorbed in what the Japanese do when they are talking. When you are looking to learn these things, the computer is great! You can find out many things about Japanese culture.
Jennifer Melick: Do you have children of your own?
Shu-Ying Li: No. Not yet. I hope to. I hope to in the future. They can really make your life complete.
Jennifer Melick: What roles do you have on your upcoming calendar?
Shu-Ying Li: Next February, I am going to be singing my very first Manon Lescaut with Hawaii Opera. I am also working on my Tosca. I think if I could sing Puccini, I would be very happy my whole life! La Rondine is one opera that I really want to do in the future. I am doing Mimi with some opera houses, and also I keep doing Butterfly. And I am thinking in the future of doing some Verdi. Like Il Trovatore and La Traviata.
Jennifer Melick: Is there any Mozart you’d like to do?
Shu-Ying Li: I do the Contessa from the Nozze di Figaro. I think it’s a good part for my voice, and for staying healthy. And also Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte. Those are the two Mozart roles, I think, so far. For Pamina, right now, they really cast a lighter voice. But in former years, it was customary for bigger voices to sing Pamina. These days, things have changed. I sang Adina two years ago from L’elisir d’amore [with Connecticut Opera]. But most houses would not cast me as Adina because my voice is too full or too big. But Renata Scotto, she did Adina. Mirella Freni too.
Jennifer Melick: You sang the Princess in Tan Dun’s Tea in Lyon and in New Zealand. How did that come about?
Shu-Ying Li: Tan Dun asked me to come to his house in downtown Shanghai. He said to me, “I wrote a new opera, would you try to sing a few measures for me?” And I looked at the music–which I liked–and I sang for him. It was so beautiful, this music. I did workshops with him in Shanghai for Tea. It turned out that I connected so strongly with Tea. It was very different from The First Emperor at the Met. The music is so beautiful, so gorgeous. When some friends of mine in Lyon asked me to sing this role with Lyon Opera House, I did it there. After that, we sang it at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. Tea is not a grand opera. It’s not like The First Emperor. It’s smaller, and the plot is not too complicated. There is a prince and a princess in love; there is jealousy; the princess is killed. [Laughs]. The opera was also performed last year at Santa Fe Opera.
Next in Part 2: Shu-Ying Li’s movie habit, 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.
Photo: Carol Rosegg