Peng Liyuan

Opera world hopes China's first lady will carry on singing

Music professionals say state duties should not prevent Xi's star soprano wife from performing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 1:49pm

China's first lady is too talented a singer to shun the stage during husband Xi Jinping's presidency, fellow music professionals say.

Nor do they see any conflict of interest between singing and state functions.

"Peng is a top-notch soprano in every sense," said conductor Li Xincao , who has performed with Peng Liyuan since 2004, including at the Kremlin in 2007 and in Vienna in 2008. "She is absolutely professional and very pleasant to work with, and it would be a pity for her not to perform under the new circumstances [as first lady]."

Peng is a top-notch soprano in every sense. She is absolutely professional and very pleasant to work with

Li said he had recently recorded the opera Mulan, in which Peng sang the title role of the filial general. Filming, with Peng in full costume, will begin next month.

Peng is accompanying Xi to Russia on his first official tour as head of state, an interesting coincidence considering that she performed at the Kremlin in 2007 shortly after the Communist Party's 17th national congress, when Xi was designated the party's next leader.

Li, who conducted that concert, recalled Peng performing in full traditional costume in the opera Farewell My Concubine at the grand finale of the Year of China, watched by top officials from both countries, including then-premier Wen Jiabao .

Deng Chuan , a violinist with the China National Symphony Orchestra at the Kremlin performance, said Peng's voice was impeccable, but her personality was even more impressive.

"She was very amicable and chatted with us without the slightest sign of official airs," she said. "She even offered her make-up assistant to help us before we went onto the stage."

Deng recalled that Peng was unusually hard-working and often rehearsed alone on stage long after the orchestra dispersed.

"It was at the National Centre for the Performing Arts and we rehearsed Mulan, which she premiered in 2004 and had performed many times since," she said. "After the session was over and we went out for lunch, I saw her all by herself on stage working on gestures and moves. These days, most singers we perform with rarely come to rehearsals. Most show up for concerts only."

Peng's singing is natural and highly gifted, said Yan Huichang , artistic director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, who worked with her in 1985.

"She was a finalist at the First National TV Chinese Vocal Contest and I was the conductor of the Chinese National Broadcast Orchestra for all the candidates," Yan said. "For some reason she missed the final rehearsal session and came for the final round. There, without any rehearsal, she delivered the most natural and exquisite singing of the famous folk song Xiao Er Hei's Wedding and won the gold medal."

Yan said he had invited Peng to perform in Hong Kong with his orchestra, but she had declined, with regrets, "due to a protocol reason which would require the approval of the [party] Central Committee's general office".

"I had wanted to invite her to sing at the handover concert, in 1997, but members of the advisory committee did not approve it," Yan recalled, adding that he still hoped to perform with her in the future.

At 51, Peng is in the golden period for a professionally trained soprano, said Hong Kong soprano Barbara Fei Ming-yee, who trained in Paris.

"She is considered a young soprano because a female singer with solid training like her can perform in peak form up to the age of 65," Fei said.

Fei said that when she met Peng in the 1980s, she was impressed with her intelligence and upbeat personality and, most of all, her unique singing style.

"Her greatest strength is to blend folk and classical singing styles and deliver it in her own special way," she said.