• Fidelio at Opera Carolina - Interview with Xu Lei (Marzelline)

    Opera Lively is covering Beethoven's only opera Fidelio by our partners at Opera Carolina in Charlotte. This is a very beloved work that is not often given, and we are thankful to Maestro Meena for bringing it to us. A series of short interviews with five questions each, hopefully with singers in all five principal roles, will be published in this space, in preparation for the show. As usual, we'll have our review, after opening night on October 17. Today we are delivering the third one, with Xu Lei in the role of Marzelline.

    The first interview, with Andrew Funk (Rocco) can be consulted by cliking [here]. The second one, with Maria Katzarava (Leonore) is [here].


    CAST CHANGE - Unfortunately and after this interview was done and published, we learned on 9/28/15 that Ms. Xu had to withdraw from the production due to a visa snafu preventing her from arriving in time. We can still read her delightful answers below since they shine lights on the character, but for the actual show, the role of Marzelline will be sung by Raquel Suarez Groen, a recent alumna of the Tyler Young Artist Program at Opera on the James who has already had many international appearances in Tel Aviv and China, as well as roles in regional companies such as New York Lyric Opera, Opera Lyra Ottawa, Syracuse Opera, and Opera Nuova, among others, and has had many concert participations including at Carnegie Hall. She was the Grand Winner of the Giulio Gari International Vocal Competition 2015. She holds a Master of Music degree and a Certificate of Professional Studies in Opera Performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

    More details of Ms. Suarez Groen's artistic biography can be found [here].


    For the new readers still unfamiliar with Opera Carolina, it is a remarkable regional company with high quality productions, always bringing to Charlotte a compelling cast. The pit is very well taken care of, with great orchestral playing by the exquisite Charlotte Symphony, and the secure conducting by James Meena who with his prodigious memory knows his scores by heart, without ever needing to consult a print copy. Therefore Opera Carolina shows are not to be missed, and with better reason when such an interesting work is on stage.

    Don't forget that Opera Carolina's season starts with a concert on October 3 (Art/Poetry/Music). See announcement [here].

    Fidelio will run on Saturday October 17 at 8 PM, Thursday October 22 at 7:30 PM, and Sunday October 25 at 2 PM, at the Blumenthal Performance Arts Center, in German, with English supertitles. Tickets can be purchased by clicking [here] or over the phone at 704.372.1000 and range from $19 to $150.

    Though Fidelio is Beethoven’s only operatic exploit, the music in this stirring story of oppression and liberation represents some of his finest work. Opera Carolina's unique production sets his magnum opus behind the Berlin Wall right before its 1989 fall, and features tenor Andrew Richards as Florestan and soprano Maria Katzarava Hernandez as Leonore/Fidelio.

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Xu Lei (Marzelline)

    Photo Credit Lu Zang, fair promotional use

    This is Opera Lively Interview #183. Questions by OL journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola. Copyright Opera Lively. Reproduction of this brief interview in its entirety is authorized but we request citation of the source and a link to this article.

    Singer: Xu Lei (or in the Western tradition, Lei Xu)
    Fach: Soprano
    Nationality: Chinese
    Web site: www.leixusoprano.com

    Artistis Highlights:

    She has most recently been featured in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Bound composed by HuangRuo, in which she sang the leading role Diane. She made her Met debut in 2009-2010 season as the First Priestess in the Met HD TV broadcast production of Iphigenie En Tauride, where she performed with such artists as Plácido Domingo and Susan Graham.

    Since then, Ms. Xu was involved with a series of roles with the company; Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos; the First Bridesmaid in Le Nozze di Figaro; A singer in La Rondine and A flower maiden in the new HD TV broadcast production of Wagner’s Parsifal, under the baton of Danielle Gatti, sharing the stage with Jonas Kaufmann and Réne Pape. Ms. Xu sang Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro and Papagena in Die Zauberflöte with James Conlon conducting the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. She made her NCPA (National Center of Performing Arts in Beijing) debut in 2014 as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro.

    Photo Credit Dario Acosta - fair promotional use

    Other leading roles Ms. Xu has sung include: Pamina in the legendary stage director Peter Brook’s award winning production of Die Zaurberflöte in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord (2011 Molière Award for Best Musical), Blanche de la Force in Les Dialogues des Carmélites in Tel Aviv's IVAI summer festival; Ilia in Idomeneo at Juillaird; Poppea in L'Incoronazione di Poppea at Chautauqua music festival; Mimì in La Bohème at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Norina in Don Pasquale at NCPA (National Center of Performing Arts in Beijing).

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - The complete dialogue for Fidelio indicates that Marzelline is 16 years old, and she certainly seems to act like a teenager quite often. In the opera’s first scene, we see her squabbling with her boyfriend – whom she doesn’t want as a boyfriend any longer, having taken a fancy to the newcomer Fidelio. Do you think Marzelline is genuinely in love with “Fidelio,” or is it more a case of infatuation? How deep are her feelings?

    Xu Lei - First of all, in this production, we are adapting character names to those of personages involved with the Berlin Wall or the GDR. Marzelline is the secretary of Walter Ulbricht -- Stasi Director of security (in this version, the names of some male characters are different, originally his name is "Pizzaro"-- the bad guy in the story. ). This new identity makes her journey even more interesting in our production, because she is "closer to the devil".

    Marzeline lives in an environment that is dealing with a lot of life and death. She is young and only 16, still full of hope. Maybe she wants freedom and love even more than other ordinary girls. She wants something good in her life, and something new. That is why, when she sees Fidelio, she sees something different in "him", a different kind of energy, a softer soul yet with a lot of determination. She is attracted to "him" immediately and it developed into love.

    In my own version of Marzelline, she didn't choose to be with her old boyfriend Chris ( originally "Jaquino" ); he is always the one who approaches her. But this time, being with Fidelio, she started to realize that this is her own choice and will. This feeling is very strong and full of beautiful hopes and it quickly develops into love.

    OL - You have a lovely aria to sing right after the duet with Jaquino, and then the beautiful Canon Quartet (“Mir ist so wunderbar”). In fact, Marzelline is onstage for nearly the entire first act. How difficult is it for a singer to be constantly onstage, even if one doesn’t have to sing the entire time? And this is also the first time you are singing Marzelline, isn’t it? When you prepare a new role, do you have a coach or teacher with whom you work? How do you go about learning a new role?

    XL - Yes, this is the first time for me to sing Marzellie. A singer's life is always busy, one thing after another. In my case, it didn't really stop for a break after I finished my Lindemann training from the Met. To fully connect with a character, one needs to put a lot of time and devotion. The dramatic demand in this opera is big for Marzelline. One has to be very comfortable doing a lot of dialogue in German and to be agile while acting. It is a big challenge for non-German speaking singers. It is also a challenge for me.

    When I was at the Met program, I had a lot of help from the wonderful coaches there. As young artists, we often take ideas from several coaches and take what is good for us and learn from different aspects. I often found it very useful. When I prepare on my own, I often learn the libretto first and find the dramatic tread between each role, read my text, and then learn the music.

    With this role, I worked completely on my own, though. I was traveling from place to place, and it's more efficient just to rely on myself during traveling. Sometimes, when life gets busy, this is something you have to do on your own. But I know, I will get a lot of good ideas and musical guidance from Maestro Meena once I get to work with him. Every conductor's tempi are different. I will adapt to any idea he has for my music and make it work for both of us.

    OL - In all of the operas based on J. N. Bouilly’s play, the Marzelline character seems to be present primarily to serve a dramaturgical function, and once she’s served it, librettists and composers don’t seem to be especially concerned about her fate. Here’s a 16 year-old girl in love and expecting to be married who suddenly discovers her fiancé is a woman – and a married one, at that. But after expressing her astonishment, she then joins in the general rejoicing, and that’s that. In some productions, her reaction is certainly more intense – sometimes, she even appears as though she’s going to kill herself. How are you planning to treat that moment in the final scene when she realizes what has happened?

    XL - A sudden change of event in opera is always very tricky to deal with. Especially, when there is not much time musically to make the emotional transaction. In this production, something big is happening at the same time -- the liberation and the newly united Berlin. The Berlin wall will be soon taken down. As a young girl who was in that certain time, I think this news thrills her maybe even more than her own love.

    Of course, at the beginning, there is astonishment and disappointment involved. But I would like to treat it as a re-discovery of her bigger love for this whole new world eventually, once she sees more and more people chanting about the liberation. She is also moved by Leonore (Fidelio)'s bravery and the power of love. Of course, I will also listen to what the director will say about the ending. He is the one who threads the dramatic purpose together. Hopefully he likes my idea also.

    OL - I’m particularly interested in Bound by Huang Ruo, in which you sang the leading role of Diane. I have recently and extensively interviewed Mr. Huang Ruo, and I attended his fascinating opera Paradise Interrupted, recently given at the Spoleto USA Festival. He seems to bridge very well the East and West divide. Please describe Bound for us, and tell us about how you see the possibilities of getting Western audiences interested in Chinese music.

    XL - The experience of doing Huang Ruo's Bound was very special and fulfilling for me, maybe one of the most memorable so far in my professional life. Not only the topic is very special - as you know, it was a real life story - but also, it is the first time for me to create a new role. I lived with Diane for quite a while and it was actually very easy for me to adapt. But to sink into this deep sorrow of hers also made me living in pain with her for a while. She also made me think about myself as an Asian who has lived in the States for almost ten years although I was in much less trouble than her.

    Here is the storyline that I quote from Houston Chronicle: "A TV report detailed how a straight-A student at Willis High School, working two jobs to help support her family, missed so many days of classes a judge jailed her for truancy. Diane Tran, the teen, told a reporter her parents' marriage had broken up and her mother had left, giving her no choice but to work."

    Underneath the surface of injustice, in my opinion, there is also a clash between Western culture and Eastern culture. Also, there is the "war wound" that is hard to forget. Although Diane is the second generation of immigrants, she could still feel her parents' "ghost", especially her mother's, and it becomes a part of her that she had to live with and to resolve in her own life.

    To see it with another angle, the story truly reveals the Oriental value verses the Western value of family, although family is also very important for the Westerners. But in the Oriental world, the morals and the philosophy are very different. Those values have put everything in order through thousands of years. Anyway, this is a whole new topic that needs a lot of time to discuss. All in all, the creators of this opera want to conclude the whole idea that " family is at the heart of Bound."

    This season, I'm also invited to sing in the Art / Poetry / Music concert again by Maestro Meena. I truly appreciate these musical series which introduce to the Western audience some Chinese songs that either are something popular in China or something that I really like. To get the audience to be interested in Chinese music, for me, the first step is to sing with my heart. This is the least I could do as a performer.

    It is hard to define what is real "Chinese music"-- Should it be Beijing opera? Should it be ancient instrumental music? Should it be the modern Chinese music that is also Western-influenced? Should it be something that is created by some unique musicians, for example Bound ? I think, it's more of an education experience for the Western audience to trace the Chinese history and the culture which is deeply transfused into the music. After all, in music, the common human emotion is universal. Music can also bring people from all of the world close, to share a magic moment together. That is also why I grew my love for Western music.

    OL - Wow, nice answer! You are a native of Nantong, China, where you trained at the Shanghai Conservatory, and then you came to the United States where you were at the Juilliard and then the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program. How did you get into opera in China, and what brought you to the United States? How do you compare vocal training in the two countries? Personally speaking, was there any major impact (such as a cultural shock) in this transition? Are you more interested in Chinese opera, or Western opera, or both, and why?

    XL - I was born in the early eighties. My parents were both amateur musicians. My mother plays violin, and my father used to be a singer. Music brought them together. That is why in my family there is always music. We listened to anything that was available on tapes, CDs and also from TV -- pop music; Chinese folk music; classical music,etc.

    I didn't decide to be a singer until I was taken to a voice lesson just for my own interest, at fifteen. A teacher in Nantong heard me and told my mother "This girl will go far in singing". She inspired me to listen to good operatic singers like Mirella Freni, Joan Sutherland, Renata Scotto and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and later, I discovered Renée Fleming and Barbara Bonney on my own, for song repertoire.

    I have always been a curious person. One day, my father got back from work, and brought a video tape of Callas' documentary. She intrigued me as a very young singer who just knew how to sing the vocal scales. I could see her expressions and the total control that she had on the stage -- musically and dramatically. I suddenly told my parents "this is something I want to do".

    I became the most hard-working student in my voice teacher's class and I got into Shanghai Conservatory of Music when I was seventeen. There, I studied with professor Ruo-e Liu, a great lady who was in her sixties. I was so lucky that I met her because she is one of the best teachers at school. Under her guidance, I immerse myself in music at the conservatory and I was happy. It was simple.

    Then the next step for me, was to go to the best school imaginable for my further education and for my dreams. At that time, the internet was not as popular as it is today. The information was much more closed then, although compare to the past, the CDs and DVDs were much easier to access. I didn't have the chance to do the research more carefully, and all I knew was "The Juilliard School is the most famous music school in this world".

    I always like challenges which are related to music, and that goal to enter Juilliard made me work even harder. I never knew how to become someone who can be on stage to sing my favorite operas. I only knew that there was a direction and the rest was an unknown mystery.

    I still remember what I wore for my Juilliard audition -- a green top with a black skirt. I sang one art song and two arias and it was done. A few month later, I got the letter of acceptance.

    I think my love and the passion for music has brought me to the Juilliard and later to the Met. But that was not enough; more hard work must still be involved. People who like my singing also really helped me to reach my dream.

    I didn't experience much "culture shock" at the beginning if I trace back. I always think, I see the world in a different angle than most of the people -- I see love, affection, hesitation, shyness, stubbornness... I see things from a more universal angle other than culture-oriented. Maybe music helped me to think this way. I don't get used to putting things in categories; that's why I rarely really have "shock" feelings.

    But compared to the education in Shanghai, what I found to be the most important was the concept of having really good coaches. In China, around the time when I was at the conservatory, there were several good voice teachers but no really experienced vocal coaches. But don't get me wrong, I respect all of the pianists, and most of the them worked really hard. But there was a lack of teaching from the pianists to the singers about the musical style, and especially the diction. There was a lack of communication between each different musical languages from the teachers and the students. Now I believe, it has changed a great deal in China, and singing Western opera is not only about the voice. This is a great realization.

    Personally, I'm really "greedy" in music and all different kinds of arts in general. I think, music is a channel to communicate. I can't say which one I like the best -- Chinese opera or Western opera. It is not a generalized topic to me. I enjoy both when everything is very well put together. The quality and the idea behind the music is the most important to me. In another word, beauty of all kinds is what is important -- either from the form, the sound, the picture or the humanity. They all touch me and move me as an artist. That is why I feel the urge to share what I feel and try my best to bring that to the audience, although sometimes, life itself can be distracting and challenging.


    We added a sixth question, which the singer answered on 10/3/15, after the fact that she was unable to come to this production due to a visa problem.

    OL - Please tell us about you as a person - what kind of personality do you have? What's your take on life? (What do you mean when you say life can be distracting and challenging?) What are some of your favorite hobbies or extra-musical interests, or causes?

    XL - I had this picture in my mind when I started this profession -- on the stage I can be as released and free as I can. But in my personal life, I want to be ordinary -- not to go too far with "big personality", but be as true and sincere as possible. In another word, to be passionate with art, but to be as humble and considerate as possible.

    There are some artists who I found very inspiring. I want to work and think like them. For instance, the film director Ang Lee. As an artist, he is so versatile -- He could do films of different types -- from something like “Sense and sensibility” to “Brokeback mountain". This big range of creativity takes deep understanding of human nature. In real life he is so calm and collected! He is also a person who respects everyone who works with him. I was so excited when the film "Life of Pi" came out, because the original novel was one of my favorite novels. It was a book that gave me a lot of courage before I started my journey in the States and continues to give me strength when I face difficult situations. It's a "survival book". Ang Lee did this film exactly like what I had imagined, even better perhaps -- it was a mesmerizing experience in the theater! It's hard to describe with words. Although I'm not a film director, I'm a creator of a certain kind also. I recreate what a composer tells me in the score.

    I can never forget the fact that I am Chinese and my philosophy is almost always based on Chinese Taoism. I didn't realize it so strongly, until I was facing certain situations. The way I think is always automatically that way. For example, I like this verse in Tao Te Ching that Bruce Lee often quoted:

    "Nothing is weaker than water,
    But when it attacks something hard
    Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
    And nothing will alter its way."

    Interestingly, that is how I see art itself -- the vulnerability is the most fragile but also the strongest thing that touches a heart. That is how a character sparks with humanity. It can evolve into many different human emotions. It can also evoke people who are around us, and can project certain emotions towards people as well.

    My current biggest vulnerability is a question I always ask myself -- "where do you belong?" My challenge is to balance my life well enough to make every situation as smooth as possible without sacrificing too much time and energy for my music.

    With this production, unfortunately, I had a visa snafu. Things like this take me out of what I do. As an international artist, there are a lots of things that are hard to explain to a US citizen. For example, I have to apply for a visa every time if I want to audition for a job in Europe. Every time I leave the US, I need a visa to get back in again. If something happens in the embassy, there is nothing I can do. For instance, this time there was this huge system breakdown at the US embassy. Later I found out it has also affected many other colleagues of mine who need to apply for a visa to be able to perform or work in the States. Although I applied for an express case, it was still too much of a risk for the opera house without me being there at the beginning of the rehearsal. Things like this in life always take a lot of time and energy, and can be distracting. But over the years, I have developed a way to pull myself out of a situation faster and faster, and try to stay emotionally strong. I believe everyone has his/her own life to deal with and no one's life is easy. We just need to stay positive and move on.

    I'm a CD collector in my free time. I like music from different genres. It was one of my hobbies since I was a teenager. I believe this is also why I got addicted to music. There is always something new to discover. Thanks to modern technology we can listen to anything from historical to something very inventive and creative. The experience of listening to a high quality recording often enriches my life. While I lived in New York, I always enjoyed "Academy Records" on 14th street, and now with iTunes and some online streaming we can listen to everything. Except classical music, I always enjoy listening to something very creative. Recently, I got addicted to this very beautiful chamber pop band "Antony and the Johnsons". It is so creative and it has opened some doors for me as an artist and as a person to see the world from a different angle. I enjoyed it very much. I also like artists like Jeff Buckley, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos, Florence the Machine, LP, etc., and my favorite rock band has always been Queen. I always wanted to paint. If I ever have more time, I will definitely do that in my free time also.


    Let's listen to the singer, in Carmen, Micaëla: Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante


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    We are transcribing and editing our exclusive interviews with Stephen Costello, Heidi Stober, Vivica Genaux (her second with Opera Lively), Chinese composer Huang Ruo, and Chinese soprano Qian Yi.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Ms. Xu has added a sixth answer to her interview; see above.

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