Soprano Ying Yeh in a former role as the Contessa in The Marriage of Figaro.
(photo courtesy of Ying Yeh)
Yeh hails from an intensely arts-focused family: both parents were film actors and her mother also played piano and danced ballet. In addition, Yeh's maternal grandfather was a well-known musician skilled at playing Chinese traditional and Western instruments. Yeh was in fourth grade when the revolution arrived in Jilin Province. "It affected everything," she said. "I lost several years because I couldn't go to school, but the good thing is that I could concentrate on studying piano and accordian at home and also work on my voice."
Chungchan is probably most famous in the West as the home of exiled emperor Pu Yi, whose palace formed part of the setting for Bertolucci's film, The Last Emperor. The city, which also contains China's main film studio, is in the northeastern corner of the country, not far from Russia. As a girl, Yeh was greatly influenced by the Russian folk music popular in Chungchan and she performed in children's opera. Despite her obvious talent and love of singing, however, she met some resistance at home when she decided to pursue a musical career. "My mother wanted me to be a doctor. She told me, `That way you can travel the world and make your living,'" said Yeh, who persisted in her desire to sing opera. She graduated from the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music with a degree in voice and was the first person after the revolution to win China's national singing competition. Ironically, she was then able to live out part of her mother's dream for her: the government sent her abroad to perform and she took third prize in an international singing contest in Brazil. By this time she was twenty-one and excited to be out on her own, although there were some complications. "Before I came, everything was arranged for me by my country. Once I got here, I had to learn to do everything for myself. At the very beginning I felt lost. In China I was famous, but here I was a nobody. I had to start all over."
Yeh expected to work hard, though, and it wasn't long before her efforts paid off. After coming to America, she won the Metropolitan audition, the prestigious Luciano Pavarotti/Philadelphia Opera Company International Singing Competition, and various other prizes. All the while she continued her education, earning a master's degree in voice from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she is also a D.M.A. candidate in performance. A lyric and coloratura soprano, Ying Yeh has performed several times as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor to wonderful reviews, as Violetta in La Traviata, Marguerite in Faust, and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Among her favorite singers are Joan Sutherland and Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
Yeh brings to her new job not just a wealth of performing experience, but also a love of teaching. While at Stony Brook, she worked with undergraduates for four years. She has taught at the Universities of Illinois and Arkansas, as well as China. "You cannot push students," she said. "As a teacher you have to have a different strategy for each individual. They're young, and their voices are tender. No voice is the same as another, no set of vocal chords is the same. I might correct one person for singing too much inside the mouth, another for something else."
Paul Yoch, one of her current students and the baritone who will sing the part of Figaro, kindly e-mailed this description of a typical lesson. "She begins with vocalisms, but she attacks your trouble areas and concentrates on stretching your range. From there she moves into the specific repertoir you're working on. She has you sing through a small part of it and then she fixes it, helping you with interpretation, movement between the sections or notes, and language skills." That last item is anything but unimportant. In order to sing opera professionally, it is necessary to have at least a working knowledge of Italian, French, and German. She does, and she also knows Latin and Spanish well enough to sing them when required. "She helps me to sing better by reminding me of the basics, such as support," Yoch wrote. "That's the big one. All singers are naturally lazy and will give as little effort as they need to to produce a desired effect. You can't effectively gauge what you sound like and that is the reason you need a good teacher. You may or may not dream of singing in the Met, but you'll never get there without a good teacher."
Yeh was eager to talk about The Marriage of Figaro, which she described as an excellent choice for the Opera Workshop because of its entertaining plot and large number of characters. "Musically, it is very beautiful, with enchanting melodies," she said, "and we have a very nice cast, good scenery, good costuming, and orchestra." Yeh hopes The Marriage of Figaro draws a big crowd.
In the story, Figaro is planning to marry Susanna, whose beauty has unfortunately drawn the wandering eye of Count Almaviva. In order to settle a debt, Figaro may be forced to marry a certain Marcellina. He and Susanna scheme to renew the ardor of the Count for his lovelorn wife by various methods. These, in addition to their strategies to save their own love, are best appreciated by attending the performance, which runs November 6-9 at 7:30 p.m. (3 p.m. Sunday) in Harlen Adams Theatre.