• The Exclusive Opera Lively interview with Chinese soprano Qian Yi

    We got to know Chinese soprano Qian Yi at the Spoleto USA Festival 2015, when she starred in Paradise Interrupted, an arresting new installation opera that centers on a woman in search of an unattainable ideal in a world activated by her lone voice. The story is inspired by the Garden of Eden and the classic Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion, and the composition merges 600-year-old Chinese music with contemporary Western music. Interactive technology enables a vast garden and a host of digital characters to interact with the protagonist and respond to her voice. Visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma directed and designed this visually stunning staging. Huang Ruo, also interviewed by Opera Lively (his piece is coming shortly) wrote the music for the piece, which is at once a continuation of tradition and entirely new. Click [here] to read Opera Lively's review of the show.

    Qian Yi has been lauded by The New York Times as “China’s reigning opera princess.” She has a very impressive career, spanning multiple media. We spoke with her in person in Charleston, SC, and collected this charming interview. We apologize for the significant delay in getting it published.


    Artistic Biography

    From the age of ten, Qian Yi studied classical Chinese opera (Kunqu) at the Shanghai Opera School. As a member of the Shanghai Opera Company, she became known for her leading roles in The Legend of the White Snake, The Water Margin and other standards of the classical Chinese operatic repertoire. The Chinese Ministry of Culture recognized her as one of the country’s finest young Kunqu actors.

    In 1998, Qian Yi was cast in the lead role of Lincoln Center Festival’s epic 19-hour production of The Peony Pavilion. The production toured internationally, playing at major international festivals in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. Her performance has been widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, garnering such superlatives as “radiant” (New York Times), “incomparable” (Wall Street Journal) and “spellbinding” (New York Magazine).

    Since coming to the U.S., she has starred in numerous re-workings of Chinese opera for a western theater context, including Ghost Lovers (Spoleto USA), The Orphan of Zhao (Lincoln Center) and Snow in June (American Repertory Theater). In addition, she has been exploring western theater, working with directors such as Meredith Monk and Karin Coonrod. In 2008, she had her western opera premiere, singing a leading role in the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter's Daughter.

    In film, Qian Yi starred in Alexander Ku’s Triple 8 Palace, an independent short film which received Official Selection at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Qian Yi also appeared in Dark Matter, an independent feature starring Meryl Streep and Liu Ye. In her latest role, Qian Yi starred in The Years Flow Like Water, another independent short.

    Qian Yi has written two plays, A Robe for the Moon which was performed at the Kennedy Center Page to Stage New Play Festival, and Fox Spirit.

    Qian Yi continues to perform Chinese opera. Most recently, she starred in the Contemporary Legend Theatre’s The Butterfly Dream, which premiered at Taiwan’s National Theater as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. She also starred in The Eternal Palace, which was performed in venues across the United States including the Smithsonian Freer+Sackler Galleries. In addition to these performances, she has brought her knowledge of Chinese traditional theater to American audiences in an academic context. She taught Chinese Opera movement at Barnard College, Columbia University and has given numerous lectures and demonstrations at universities and museums around the country.



    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Qian Yi

    This is our interview #174, published out of order due to transcription delays (we are at #195 now). Copyright Opera Lively. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos are fair promotional use (we do not know the names of the photographers; will be happy to include if we are told who they are).

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - You are not only the main role’s singer, but were one of the main creating forces behind the piece. Please tell us what you thought of this project when you were first approached by Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma.

    Qian Yi - She approached me with a little stage model, almost like a pop-up book, black, with flowers, and also there is a little white flower in it. I thought it was very, very beautiful. Immediately it inspired me, because in traditional Chinese opera theater we do everything with empty stage. We create scenery and stories with our bodies and gestures; these are conventions.

    But with this one it was a completely different energy of a staging; a completely new way of looking at a space. The stage is filled with the black color and the flowers. So I said “wow, this is the opposite of what I usually do.” And I immediately said “that is very interesting; I will do it. I want to see how my tradition will mix with this full stage.” It starts flat and empty and then it opens up. I had never been approached in this new way before.

    OL - You participated in the writing of the libretto, together with Mr. Ji Chao. Is this the first time you do something like this for an opera (I do know that you write stage plays as well), or is it a common occurrence in your operatic career?

    QY – It was the first time, as far as opera goes. I just feel that I did so many productions that were not satisfying regarding the creative part! People hand me the script to perform, and I’m the last one to have an input. Sometimes I feel like a child born with some sort of shortage. Naturally, there is something missing. It’s too late for the actors to do anything.

    So this time I insisted that I wanted to be a part of the creating of the libretto. The process was very hard, because it went from zero to a full staging. We had to tell a story with full character development, with an arc. I feel very rewarded, because that saved me a lot of time, inhabiting the character from the beginning and not just during the last four weeks. So when I got to the rehearsals, I was already prepared for the character. I was already nurturing the character since she was a tiny little seed. That gave me a lot of time to prepare.

    OL - You were also said to have been the muse who inspired Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma. Please tell us about it. In what way did you influence her artistic vision?

    QY - I think it’s because of the way I left China, and my life in New York. Somehow she found something in it, but I don’t know if I should speak for her. The story is about a woman waking up from a dream. She is on a journey of searching her unattainable ideal. That echoes my life in New York. I left China and came here to do a production, and ever since, I have been looking for my own way. I’m trying to find who I truly am. The tradition I inherited is all about teachers giving it to you, feeding you the tradition, the customs, everything. My job is to inherit, then to pass on.

    My life in New York is not bound by that anymore. It’s almost the opposite. People don’t tell me what to do, anymore. People expect me to tell them who I am. Initially it was painful, because I didn’t know who I was. I was just this little vessel, being told what to do all the time. I was ten years old when I got into opera school. I had to learn where the hand stops in each gesture. It was not about me; it was about the customs. How you bend, how you point out, how far this finger needs to be from my eyebrow. It is a strictly regulated art form. So coming to New York I could finally be creative, but it took me a long time to figure out who I was.

    OL - Now let’s talk about the dramaturgic aspects. Your character wakes up from a dream of intense pleasure and is disappointed with her lonely reality. Tell us more about her psychological arc. Also, this piece seems to make reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Garden of Eden. Please tell us about the symbolic elements of the piece. What does the white flower at the end mean?

    QY - The pleasure dream is a metaphor for this unattainable ideal. It is so perfect; it’s like the Garden of Eden. You don’t feel cold, you don’t feel hot; everything is just perfect. You don’t feel hungry; immediately there are things you can eat. It’s only pleasure and happiness in this perfect, perfect place. You have no worries, no sadness, nothing.

    And then she wakes up from the dream, and says “Oh my God, how lonely this reality is!” In real life we all have fears, insecurities, and all kinds of doubts about life and our existence. So, then she is completely lost. She hears the Four Elements singing into the wind and calling her. These are all manifestations of her insides. They are corners of her heart. They are calling her and saying that there are places she can go to, and search. So I was doing these movements, it was like finding out that these sounds were coming from some layers in my heart, and I decided to go after those sounds, to look for that place.

    Then John Holiday, the countertenor, sang so brightly! It was the manifestation of an actual place. It was almost like my consciousness was telling me that there was a place. That sound gave me the inspiration to say “I’m going.” Then I moved like this [demonstrates], and the place opens up. The second scene shows a gate that stands up, waiting for me to open it. That is the entrance to the garden. Eventually in the garden there is a tree growing, symbolizing herself as a growing being. It’s very encouraging.

    Then she sees the fireflies that are a symbol of her childhood, her innocence, and what she went through. Those elements transform into her youth and come back to visit her. That is done by tenor Joseph Dennis who is a wonderful singer. He comes as her lover, but the double-meaning is her youth, symbolizing fun and reckless love. When you are young you indulge in unstoppable passion and love. So they spend a night together.

    In the morning, he leaves, because you cannot hold on to youth. She does not understand. She cries “why do you have to leave? We are so happy here!” and he responds “you will be fine. I was here, I comforted you, you had a good night of rest, and you’ll be fine. You are good to go; keep going on your journey.” Then she is so sad and sings a song saying “oh, my youth left me.”

    Then immediately the four men transform into wolves. It’s the animal drive, to tear her up to pieces. These four men are like guardian angels but they are also from inside her. Even the garden is a part of her. That’s what her will is. The she rides away and looks back at her childhood and youth, and finds this primal energy, as a woman who can face up to her challenges and reach another level of energy. She stands up and sings about all the challenges in life and all the setbacks, saying “I have to face it; I need to deal with this.” She is, one more time, growing up.

    But eventually as she grows up, she rises up to meet an even bigger challenge, which is the white flower. The white flower had appeared in her dream, in the beginning. You see a white blot on the floor when she is having her dream: that’s the very elusive white flower. So when she finally sees the white flower in the garden, she is completely in awe. She says “I cannot believe that I met you!” Have you had this experience when you go to some place or some country and you meet someone and you feel “oh my God, this is so related to me, so connected!”? It’s that kind of high, that connection that is so strong and clear. That’s how she feels about the white flower. So she sings “I can give everything of myself to you. I trust you. You are so magnificently pure and beautiful! That’s my home that I’ve been searching for, for a long time.”

    But the white flower is trying to seduce her. There is a part of the flower that produces pollen so that it can survive and reproduce when the insects come. The flower wants her to be this; the female organ of the flower. So I’m doing movements that mimic the research we did about pictures of flowers. Eventually she feels trapped and is desperate, trying to get out of it. The four men chanting wake her up. Then she realizes that these are illusions. She breaks up with the illusions. She does not need to live a life of illusions, anymore. She becomes a simple, grounded person who can live her everyday life, in the end.

    OL – Very interesting! So, the four men – they seem to represent elements of nature and they match your desires with various things you encounter in the garden, right? It is interesting that they don’t speak real words, unlike your character.

    QY - Yes, because they are not human. They are elements, they are elusive and transformable. They can be anything they want. They are wind, fire, earth, and air. They are neutral. They are not evil or good. They are just neutral, existing there as parts of the garden. But they also represent parts of her heart that want to save her. She is the one who has manifested these things that come up around her.

    OL - The piece contains special effects of light and projections that seem to respond to the modulations in your voice. This seems really cool. How do you see the use of technology coupled with elements of traditional Chinese opera?

    QY - I think it is great, because tradition needs to move forward. Each generation, we need to add something valuable into the tradition, and that’s how tradition can live on, otherwise it is just dead. What do we add and how do we add it, is the ever so important and ultimate question we need to think about. These projections interacting with my voice are interesting because ultimately everything boils down to who you are. So, the voice is part of who we are. If modern technology can manifest who we are in another form, it’s wonderful.

    OL - The piece among other influences was inspired by The Peony Pavillion, in which a woman wakes up from a dream of love so profound that she dies pining from it. That piece has the impressive duration of 19 hours, longer than Wagner’s Ring, and you’ve performed in it. Tell us more about it.

    QY - Yes, it’s 19 hours of music. We split it in six evenings with three hours each. We went on tour and at one point we did two performances each day, afternoon and evening, so we sang the whole thing in three days.

    Qian Yi in The Peony Pavillion

    OL – Didn’t you get any vocal fatigue?

    QY - No, I didn’t. It’s OK. I’ve prepared my whole life for this kind of thing. I can do it. We rehearsed for this piece for a full month, and I sang every day for eight hours. It’s not like I’m not used to it.

    OL - OK. How is traditional Chinese opera doing in China, in the middle of the modernization of the country?

    QY - There is a new cultural revolution going on. Everybody has heard of this. Traditional opera and other traditional art forms are being revived. The country is getting more stable and with more money. People are looking back. They don’t only look forward; they also look back to see what is valuable; what our ancestors gave to us. Especially young people are again recognizing that these traditions are extremely valuable.

    OL - Your career is admirable. You are very multi-talented, from writing for the theater and performing stage roles, to singing in Chinese and Western opera, to acting in movies like Triple 8 Palace that was an Official Selection of the Cannes Festival, and Dark Matter alongside Merryl Streep. Please tell us what your core objectives are as an artist, and what medium allows you to best express yourself.

    QY - Different art forms are just guidelines. They are like games. The most important thing for me is to find specific things that release my potential, or challenge it, or expand it. I really don’t mind doing different art forms. That’s also what New York taught me. The city has no borders. It has no cage bars to trap myself in. In my head there shouldn’t be cage bars. I’ll be trying more things, to let my potential out. Everybody has lots, lots of potential. Everybody can be creative as long as they learn to release it.

    OL – But do you at least prefer opera, among all those other genres?

    QY - Yes, I do, that’s true. Opera as an art form is over-the-top sentimental. I just love it, because I am a sentimental person. I do things with lots of heart, lots of soul. I love being on stage and releasing all my emotions. The orchestra, the violins, they just turn me on, especially if I can work with inspiring singers, with very good singers, like the four of them in this opera we are doing. They taught me so much about the art of singing! These four, they all sing differently. All of them of course have different voices, but the way they approach their voices and their vocal cords is also different. It is so beautiful to hear!

    There is this scene where I lay in the flower and they sing lullabies. It is so beautiful to listen to! Every time we are doing this scene I feel that I’m a lucky person – I’m sitting there listening, and they are singing for me, like a choir. It is crazy! I must have done something good in past lives. [laughs]

    OL - We love contemporary opera at Opera Lively. Please tell us about The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which you sang in San Francisco in 2008. It is interesting to see that while Huang Ruo, the composer of Paradise Lost is Chinese and in his career he incorporates Western music such as Jazz, Stewart Wallace, the composer of Bonesetter’s Daughter is a Westerner who incorporates Chinese music in his piece.

    Qian Yi in The Bonesetter's Daughter

    QY - I think they are both intrigued with the traditional form that I inherited, the Kunqu opera. So they want to do something with it, to introduce it into their music. The Bonesetter’s Daughter is sung in English. Stewart Wallace was able to teach me to bend the words and the way I say them, as if I were singing Kunqu opera. The main character is Ruth. I’m playing her ghost grandmother. So I’m singing to her “when you were a baby” but I chew the words like in Kunqu Opera. [She demonstrates if for me, singing the line with the Western style, then, singing it with the Kunqu style]. It’s very interesting. It’s the way we pronounce the words.

    China has more than 300 styles of opera in different regions. The main differences reside in the pronunciation of the words, due to the many different dialects we have in China. Every single region has their own dialect and their own genre of Chinese opera. So my specific genre, the Kunqu which is practiced in the South, has specific ways to go about the melody of the pronunciation. Huang Ruo used the essence of the Kunqu style in Paradise Lost.

    OL – In spoken Chinese language, the intonation changes the meanings of the words, as well, right?

    QY - Yeah, yeah.

    OL – So, how does that play into the operatic singing? Do you use different intonations to change meanings, as well?

    QY - Yes. Take my name Yi, for example. We have four tones to say it. [She demonstrates the four tones] Yi can mean “one” if said like this, but means “what?” if said like that, or “already” this other way, or “simple” when said like this. The operatic singing modifies these tones, so if you want to mean “simple” when you say Yi, you have to sing it a bit differently, actually almost the opposite way you’d use in the common language. It’s hard to understand for a non-Chinese speaker. Do you understand it?

    OL – I don’t speak any Chinese but I believe I’m comprehending a lit bit what you mean. I guess in Western opera we’d call this effect, colors. You can use different colors in your words which might modify the emotional impact and slightly change the meaning, so it’s similar but Chinese does seem to go a step further in the direction of meaning changes, I’d think.

    QY - It’s similar, yes, but Chinese does it more, like you said.

    OL - Now, tell us more about you. You started your operatic education at age 10. What brought you to it?

    QY - It was almost by chance. The Cultural Revolution finished around 1976. In 1986 the Government said that traditional culture needed to be rejuvenated a little bit. So they recruited a first group of children to learn Kunqu opera. My mother saw the announcement in a newspaper. I was struggling with math in school. It was just no hope that I’d pursue something in math. I was ten years old but I was already in the choir, at school. My mother said “we don’t even know what this Kunqu is, but try it. I think Kunqu is accompanied by flute, which is very beautiful. See if you can get in the first round of auditions.”

    When I got there, there were already lots, lots of children there. My father said to my mother “see all these children? They look like they are very good at this. Don’t waste the registration money; just take her back home.” “Thanks, Dad!” [laughs]. So, among 5,000 children, I got by the first round. My mother said, “Oh, you got in! Try the next round!” So I tried, and kept being successful in all five rounds. Finally we were down to 100 children and they needed to select 60. I got in. They were children from all over the country. So my mother said “well, you made it, so you might as well enroll and give it a shot.”

    OL – So you got years of intensive training with them, right?

    QY - Yes, it was very intense. I was studying with my masters who were national treasures.

    OL - How are you as a person, in terms of your personality?

    QY - My personality? Oh, my God. It’s hard to say. I think what I’m missing most, is having a real life. When I was little I was taken care of by my parents, then I went to boarding school for ten years, learning Kunqu opera. Then I came to New York. I have never had the time to practice, for instance, kitchen skills, or even basic real life skills like going out and hanging out with friends and being social. I have no idea about these things. I find myself a very boring person, actually. I wish I could cook. I can cook for myself but when I go to the supermarket and I see all those vegetables, I just don’t know what to buy… I don’t know. Later I learned to make a list, when I go grocery shopping.

    OL – Yes, but many of those who know these things, they don’t know how to sing opera.

    QY - [laughs] Yes, but I think real life skills are very, very important.

    OL - What do you like to do outside of the artistic realm?

    QY - I like to go see movies. I love movies. I hate sports. It took me three years to learn how to ride a bicycle [laughs]. I still don’t know how to drive. I love to go to the beach. Now that I’m growing a little bit older, spending time with my family is very important: my parents, my husband, my child. I came to New York very young, and very abruptly. I said “Mommy, I’m leaving. Don’t even bother coming to the airport to see me off. I’m going off to the world. I’m going to explore, and go as far as I can.” Now that I’m a bit older, I feel that it is so precious, so important to get a letter from my mother saying “how are you? Get some good rest!” They care about me. They are in China, and I’ve learned to appreciate that, more.

    OL – How old were you when you left China?

    QY - I was twenty-two.

    OL - And how old are you know?

    QY - [makes a face] I’m forty!

    OL – Oh my God, you look so much younger! It’s something in the Chinese genes! I interviewed Huang Ruo, and I couldn’t believe that he was 38! I thought he was 27 or something like that.

    QY - [laughs] It must be that!

    OL – Thank you so much for this lovely interview!

    QY - You’re welcome!


    Let's listen to the singer. While the presentation in Charleston was much visually prettier than this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the clip below does provide a sample of Qian Yi's beautiful voice:


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