East Comes West: Liping Zhang and Carmen [The Royal Opera, 6-24 October 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks with the Chinese soprano who returns to Francesco Zambello’s production of Bizet’s Carmen for The Royal Opera…

Liping Zhang

When setting out from her birthplace, Wuhan, to take the 650-mile journey to attend the Conservatory in Beijing, Liping Zhang can hardly have imagined that she would eventually become the Director of Vocal Studies there. That’s all the more certain because, despite having now become a soprano of international standing, she was at that time still unclear as to her future. “I was never an ambitious person and I think that I matured pretty late.” That’s not to say that it was not apparent from an early age that Liping was a musical child, but living in China it was not western music that claimed her attention.

“Among my classmates I was probably the only one to grow up in a family that was musical. My father was an instrumentalist and my mother a dancer, but he was not at all interested in western music and my mother was a Chinese folk-dancer, not a ballerina. She hoped, though, that I too would become a dancer and, when I was very young, I spent four or five years learning dance in order to please her. But that was at an age when I hated to have to practice and wanted instead to be out playing with the other kids. However, I’ve always loved to sing and when at the age of twelve or thirteen I went to middle school one of the teachers, someone who had herself just graduated from the Conservatory, took note of my voice and I agreed to her suggestion that she give me voice lessons. I’d been singing only Chinese songs and that was also what she taught me, but, since she also helped me over breathing and over expression, it was something that was going to help when I turned to western music.”

Thanks to this teacher, Liping took her next important step, to follow advice and take the examination for formal training at the Faculty School in the Conservatory in Wuhan. Later she would gain by moving on to another Conservatory, in Beijing, which could offer her more by which time an event had occurred which, viewed in retrospect, was a significant moment. Although the teaching in Wuhan had included some songs from Italy, it was still those of China which were central to classes. “But then one night they showed a movie which everyone went to see. It was La traviata and it was my first real sight of opera. As I watched it I found myself in tears. That was at the moment when Violetta has the solo that begins ‘E strano! E strano!’ and which leads into ‘Sempre libera’ and, although I couldn’t altogether explain it, I was aware that hearing that had touched me deeply. I hurried home, bought a cassette tape of the opera and played it constantly, Once again I found myself in tears, but for my sister who also had to hear it daily it was a very different experience. She got very bored and said ‘please turn it off’, but all I could do was to say that she just didn’t understand. So that was what first led me towards opera.”

Once in Beijing Liping found herself in a very different environment. “The class I was in at the Beijing Conservatory consisted of only twelve people, five of us being sopranos, and most of us were there because we came from musical families who had encouraged us to pursue this training. Given the population of China, you have to wonder how many students would have liked to be there, and we who were the chosen ones felt very lucky. But even then I was still unsure about my goal in life. I thought much more about a good life with somebody who loved me and would give me a child than I did about a singing career.”

At this stage Beijing’s Tiananmen Square would twice become relevant in Liping’s young life. First, there was the honour of being chosen by the authorities as the young soprano who would sing with Plácido Domingo in the Square on his first visit to Beijing (this was during Liping’s final year at the Conservatory). Then there was the massacre perpetrated in the square on 4 June 1989 which was a spur for her to leave even if it did make getting the necessary visa more difficult. “Going to the west to continue your musical studies had become a natural step for my generation, and I went to Canada. Before leaving I had met a teacher, Phyllis Mailing, who was very good at the twentieth-century repertoire which in contrast to the earlier periods was not well taught in China and, whatever my reactions to it might be, I wanted to know about it as part of the range of western music. So I set off in order to study with her for two years in Vancouver. In fact I lived in Canada for seven years and from there I started to build my career. Consequently when I came to England I was spoken of as a girl from Canada who wished to develop by singing here and in Europe but, of course, I keep my Chinese passport and remain Chinese.”

Since then Liping has become best known for her roles in Italian classics, not least the title role in Madama Butterfly which provided her with both her European debut (at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998) and her first role at the Met in 2004. However, if there was one moment that really established beyond doubt that opera was indeed her calling it was the first time that she was contracted professionally. The production was of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and the role that of Barbarina. “As a foreigner in a new country, life had its difficulties for me and to earn the amount I was offered for seven performances was really exciting. But the major discovery was the realisation of just how much I enjoyed being on stage and at the same time recognising that I would unquestionably want to do it for the rest of my life. You only have one life to live, but as a singer you can experience others. When I got on stage I found that I was not myself anymore but the character I was playing. You live their life and in this way you experience other lives, and that is something really amazing.”

The Italian emphasis – in addition to Butterfly she has been seen as Mimi, Liù, Gilda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca and Violetta – is carried over into her recent recording debut for EMI, but the arias included are not limited to ones related to her stage appearances. “I included Bellini whose operas are not often staged now. I would love to appear in I puritani or Sonnambula, although Norma, which is on the recording, is one that I would not choose to appear in yet. But also on the disc is some Verdi, arias from Il corsaro and from Il trovatore. Many people feel that this is territory for heavier dramatic sopranos, but I see these roles as ones that still count as bel canto and some items that are on the recording are indeed there to show that I can do them and in the hope that it will encourage people to ask me to do those operas.”

I am talking to Liping Zhang at Covent Garden where she is reprising the role of Micaëla in Francesca Zambello’s production of Bizet’s Carmen having first been in it in 2007. It seems apt therefore to ask her to comment on her feelings about the French repertoire as opposed to the Italian. She takes me by surprise! “I really love the French operas and, although people who hear me seem to think that I am a natural for the Italian repertoire, it wouldn’t be right for me to say that that is what I prefer. I find the French repertoire is more dramatic and more passionate. Just listen to Roméo et Juliette, it breaks your heart and indeed I love Gounod greatly. Faust, which I’ve done, is one of my favourites and another is Mireille, but it’s very rarely done now. Another favourite role is Leila in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be asked to sing more French works.”

Liping Zhang’s popularity worldwide illustrates admirably how somebody from China can succeed as a major artist in western music. She may not be a headliner for the press to the same extent as pianist Lang Lang, but where he divides critics Liping regularly receives great notices and no-one is better placed to comment on the welcome that opera can receive in the Far East where she now performs not only in Beijing but in Hong Kong and in Shanghai. Indeed, it was in Beijing’s Grand National Theatre that she recently did the title role in Tosca for the first time, but when talking of eastern responses to opera the production she mentions is one of Madama Butterfly. “We just did it at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in a modern production by Daniele Abbado, the son of the conductor. We then brought it to China and I felt initially that a traditional staging would have been more appropriate for an audience less familiar with the work, our version being highly symbolical and therefore not necessarily easy to grasp as a concept. But, despite my worries, it was a huge success there. Some disagreed, but many said that they could really connect with this production and that was because of their knowledge of the Chinese Peking Opera. There the stage can be almost empty – just a table, say – and the money is spent not on sets but on costumes and make-up. Because of that, the way in which people do things in those stagings is very symbolical, but the Chinese understand that as part of the tradition. So those who thought that our Butterfly was the best ever had found a way into it by making this comparison.”

Prior to 2007 Liping had already appeared in many productions of Carmen and the Covent Garden approach, highly attuned to the Spanish atmosphere and to lavish detail that even involves a horse, was not what she was used to. But, as befits a singer who becomes the person she is playing, it is the character that is crucial for Liping. “You do what you are asked to do by the director, but you have to make your own character and as Micaëla I feel that you need to recognise that she is very feminine – and that to an extent which marks her out from all the other characters. Carmen herself is such a strong, driving character that she lacks these specifically feminine aspects that the music reserves for Micaëla. But that’s not to say that she is not courageous when she ventures into the mountains in Act Three. Her religious belief is very strong and has to be, because otherwise she would never overcome her fears and have the willpower to seek out Don José and to bring him back home to his dying mother. But she’s also helped in this by her love for him. She does refer to the fact that she used to love Don José as though that love is in the past, but I think that that is merely in recognition of the fact that she knows for sure that she has lost him to Carmen and that in truth she is still in love with him.”

On this occasion Don José is Roberto Alagna and it is the first time that she has worked with him and with the conductor Bertrand de Billy. She is a good friend of Marco Berti who was Don José in 2007 and whose performance she liked very much, but already and still in the early stages of rehearsal with Alagna she is appreciating his kindly responsiveness. “I’m sure it’s going to be a great success for him and it’s always fascinating to meet new people when you are getting a production together.” Finally we return to the subject so crucial to Liping of identifying with the character. “To continue to live in the role while you are off-stage is dangerous and during Act Two of Carmen when I am not performing, although I may sometimes choose to listen, I generally prefer to be quiet and in my own world. But once you are that person and, however much you prepare the singing in advance, the hope is that you open up to feel the emotions at that moment. If the technique which you have developed can help you to present that, and if the audience get it, then you find yourself sharing those feelings with them.”

  • Performances at 7 p.m. on 6, 10, 13, 21 & 24 October
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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