Hong Kong soprano and Allegro Singers founder Barbara Fei Ming-yi dies at 85

She was a cultural trailblazer and instrumental in uniting circles of Chinese music around the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 3:30pm

The city has lost a musical luminary with the passing of Barbara Fei Ming-yi.

The renowned soprano and founder of choral group Allegro Singers, which groomed generations of choristers, passed away on Monday night at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital.

She was 85 and is survived by two sons.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying expressed his “profound sadness” and said Fei “contributed her expert knowledge to the government in formulating policy on music promotion as well as other arts and cultural matters”.

Undersecretary for Home Affairs Florence Hui Hiu-fai told the Post: “Every time we met she would generously share thoughts on music and arts development, especially for our young people. She was a treasure and will be dearly missed.”

Born into an intellectual family in Shanghai in 1931, Fei’s musical talent was evident from an early age, when at four, she could perform from memory The Family Song, from a movie directed by her father, Fei Mu, one of China’s top film directors.

Fei studied piano and voice at the national conservatory in Nanjing in the late 1940s before she relocated to Hong Kong with her family in 1949.

She made her debut in 1951 at a concert presented by the Sino-British Orchestra to inaugurate the new hall at Queen’s College.

It was the only time her father would hear her sing however, as he died of heart failure shortly after working on a film in Yuen Long.

Fei continued to develop her career as a soprano under the wing of her uncle Fei Yi-min, director of Ta Kung Pao, the oldest active Chinese language newspaper in China.

After a debut at the new Empire Theatre in North Point in 1956, she joined the Sino-British Orchestra to perform in Guangzhou, and, later that year, flew to Paris to study under illustrious European soprano Lotte Schöne for three years.

The opening of City Hall in 1962 offered Fei a platform for vocal arts, especially her signature repertoire of Chinese folksongs sung in western style.

With the founding of the Allegro Singers in 1964, she commissioned Chinese composers to arrange folksongs for chorus, a practice she kept at every annual concert up to 2016.

With her unique family background, she was also welcomed with open arms both in Taiwan and on the mainland.

She was the first artist from Hong Kong to perform in Shanghai after the Cultural Revolution, exchanging ideas with mainland musicians and introducing works by local composers such as Doming Lam Ngok-pui.

She was also instrumental in organising forums that brought Chinese music circles around the world under one roof.

Fei was a long-time member of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, serving also as head of music until late last year.

She was awarded the Bronze and a Silver Bauhinia medals in 2001 and 2012 respectively.

Her last performance was in City Hall Concert Hall last November when she conducted the Allegro Singers at the concert series “Our Dream 2016”, presented by the Chinese Women Composers’ Association, of which she was honorary president.

She was supposed to lead her group to a Taipei performance this weekend.

In what would be her last interview in a long and stellar career, Fei told the Post last Friday that she wished to return to the stage of the Empire Theatre, which was renamed the State Theatre but closed in 1997.

“Even if I have no more teeth and I can just stand there, I hope that day will come,” she had said on her hospital bed.