Soprano's fairytale success is enough to inspire an opera

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am

Yang Guang was a factory worker when she heard Western opera for the first time. Little did she know what destiny had in store for her

Mezzo-soprano Yang Guang had relatively modest aspirations when she was young.

'I thought I would teach music at a school somewhere in China,' the internationally acclaimed diva said.

'For that reason I didn't really pay much attention during English lessons at school. When I enrolled at the Juilliard Opera Centre in New York City, I only knew about 20 words of English.'

Growing up in Beijing, her love of music started before she entered primary school, continued throughout her childhood years and blossomed in middle school. What is most surprising is that no one else in her family had any type of musical talent.

When she told her parents, both of whom were doctors, that she wanted to pursue a career in music, they were less than supportive.

'They were traditional Chinese parents, putting me under a lot of pressure to study a profession so that I could become a doctor, a lawyer or something like that,' she said.

'I was something of a rebellious teenager. I decided to attend a vocational rather than an academic high school.'

After graduating in 1988, Yang worked for three years in a textiles factory. It was at this time that she heard someone singing Western opera for the first time.

'I heard a recording of [Australian opera singer] Joan Sutherland on a cassette,' she said. 'I started looking for a teacher who could teach me to sing like that.'

Yang's job provided her with an income and with it a degree of financial and emotional independence from her parents.

Working six days a week in a factory, she spent Sundays travelling across town - a three to four-hour trip in those days - to the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, where she hired a private voice coach and enrolled in group lessons to prepare for an audition with the prestigious academy.

After six months of hard work she was accepted by the school. Upon graduation five years later, she became the youngest voice teacher at the institution, serving as a professor's assistant and teaching courses. She also started entering singing competitions, both at home and abroad.

Yang's first big break came in 1997, when she won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Described by Gramophone magazine as having 'a full-bodied, tremendously exciting but unschooled voice', she was the first Chinese singer to win the competition.

'I am still the only Chinese singer ever to have won it,' she said with obvious pride.

Agents from both sides of the Atlantic were soon knocking on her hotel room door. Somewhat overwhelmed by the attention, she flew home to think seriously about her future. That was when her second big break came.

Her idol Joan Sutherland and the great American maestro Marilyn Horne had both been judges at the competition.

'I was invited by the Marilyn Horne Foundation to sing at her Birthday Gala Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City,' Yang said.

'After the concert, with all of those great singers, Horne asked me what my plans for the future were. I said that I wanted to pursue advanced studies at Juilliard.'

Yang was accepted into the prestigious institution with a full scholarship. Owing to her success at Cardiff, Juilliard's English entrance requirements were waved and she spent her preparatory year learning English.

'The most benefit I got from Juilliard was language study,' she said, estimating that she spent 90 per cent of her time working on her pronunciation, diction and the meaning of words in French, German and Italian, as well as studying lyrics.

'When I arrived at Juilliard I couldn't say or understand anything in English,' she said. 'I was exempted from taking [the language test] TOEFL. If I had, my score would have been ridiculously low.'

While Yang has sung the role of Lu in Tan Dun's opera Tea, and Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's confidante in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, it would be incorrect to say that she has been typecast exclusively in Asian roles.

She has also sung the title role in Carmen, Amneris in Aida, Flosshilde in Das Rheingold and Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. She has performed with the Welsh National Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Lyon Opera, the Stockholm Radio Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra, among others.

She has performed in Hong Kong twice before, once in 1997 and another time in 2000. She can be seen at City Hall at this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The programme will embrace what she calls 'the most important aspects' of her repertoire.

'There will be a little bit of everything, from Handel to Verdi, from the baroque to the romantic periods, and also some French and Italian vocal characters,' she said.

Yang is thrilled about performing in Hong Kong - a place she affectionately thinks of as home.

'For 10 years I have spent so much of my time abroad and I have improved so much,' she said.

'This will be my first operatic recital with a full orchestra anywhere in the whole world. I am very excited and glad to have this chance to come back to Hong Kong because this will be a recital and I have many things that I would like to share with the audience,' she said.

The critically acclaimed diva seems somewhat overwhelmed by her success.

'I said to my parents that music to me was not just a hobby, I loved it very much. I was not expecting to become a famous singer or to become rich and famous. I just wanted my job to be something that was related to music,' Yang said.

'Even if I had ended up teaching music at a school somewhere, I think I would have been happy.'