China’s Shenyang fulfils dream of singing Wagner in Hong Kong performance
Towering bass-baritone, a fan of the German composer, set himself the goal long ago of singing Wagner, and is delighted to have his chance in Götterdämmerung with the Hong Kong Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden
When Shenyang goes on stage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on Thursday, the Chinese bass-baritone will fulfil a long-held dream: to take on a Wagnerian role.
He is singing the part of Gunther in Hong Kong Philharmonic’s opera-in-concert performance of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final part of the orchestra’s triumphant rendition of the entire Ring Cycle under conductor Jaap van Zweden.
The 33-year-old Tianjin native relishes the chance to play the king of the Gibichungs, a pathetic mix of arrogance and cowardice and easily manipulated by his evil half-brother Hagan.
“Gunther is a coward and totally naive behind the proud, aristocratic facade. All that personality has to come through in the voice,” he says, looking relaxed in his hulking, six-foot-plus frame as he takes a break from rehearsals at the Cultural Centre.
It has taken a decade on the professional stage to get to this point. Shenyang, who goes by a one-word name to spare foreigners the trouble of telling his first name (Yang) from his surname (Shen), once told an interviewer he was immune from stage fright. As a confident 23-year-old student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, he made such an impression on Renee Fleming, the American soprano, that she helped him prepare for the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which he won convincingly with his sonorous, expressive delivery and fine legato line.
Further studies at the Metropolitan Opera and The Juilliard School in New York set him up for a jet-setting career similar to other New York-based compatriots such as pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. He is one of a few Asian male soloists to make numerous appearances at The Met, debuting in 2009 as Masetto in Don Giovanni, and followed by performances as Colline in La bohème, Garibaldo in Rodelinda and The Speaker in The Magic Flute.
But his voice needed time to mature into one that could pull off a role in the German composer’s protracted operatic works without being drowned out by the grand scale. The Hong Kong production is not a full opera, but the orchestra and soloists will be accompanied in the six-hour-long concert by not one, but three choruses.
“I set the goal of singing Wagner a long time ago. I like Wagner’s music more than anybody else’s. It is so grand. Singing it requires a lot of work and sacrifice but it is worth it,” he says.
Unusually for a concert, rehearsals for Götterdämmerung started a full fortnight before the first performance. Shenyang says van Zweden’s insistence on more practice has translated into a distinct interpretation that adds to the understanding of the epic cycle.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic began the four-part cycle in 2015, performing one part per year. “I sat in the audience for last year’s Siegfried and listened to the Naxos recordings of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, and I heard things that I hadn’t heard in other performances of the Ring Cycle,” he says. And he has heard enough to make a fair comparison. He has a library of around 10,000 CDs in his Tianjin home.
Shenyang is a bit of a Teutonophile. He fell in love with German lieder [19th century art songs] after hearing a recording by bass-baritone Hans Hotter as a young music student. In 2009, he gave a lieder recital during the Hong Kong Arts Festival in tribute to Hotter and Goethe, another major influence.
Having spent most of his career split between New York and China, he is considering a move to Germany in the future to finesse his language skills and further equip himself for a major Wagnerian role.
But that is not the ultimate trophy. His Chinese background means he cannot be another Hotter, or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. “It is extremely hard for an Asian singer to master multiple European languages and really get the music as well. I need to carve my own path,” he says.
He has developed a one-of-a-kind repertoire that now includes early 20th century Chinese songs and contemporary compositions.
“I think it is important to promote Chinese art songs such as those written by the early 20th composer Huang Tzu. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be considered as seriously as German lieder. We need to find our own masterpieces,” he says.
He has also worked closely with Ye Xiaogang, one of China’s most successful composers today, and regularly performs Ye’s more experimental works combining Western music tradition with Chinese art songs, such as his Songs of Sorrow and Gratification.
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It is a peripatetic lifestyle. “I am not dating. And that is partly because I don’t know where I’m going to be next. It is rare for me to be in one place for two weeks,” he says. But he plans to appear in Hong Kong regularly because his parents – both retired professional singers – spend their winters in nearby Zhongshan.
“It is two hours door-to-door from the Cultural Centre to their home. So I will definitely keep coming back to Hong Kong to perform, especially in the winter,” he says.
The Ring Cycle Part Four: Götterdämmerung also features bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brunnhilde) and tenor Daniel Brenna (Siegfried).
January 18, 6pm and Jan 21, 3pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui. HK$380-HK$1,080 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2721 2332