by Sebastiano Bazzichetto
TORONTO – Something mysterious and captivating lies in the eyes and the voice of those who are blessed with the gift of singing. There is no greater pleasure than that of stepping onto the stage of a theatre, having the chance to recount the story of (in)credible human beings under the patronage of Melpomene and Euterpe.
The world of an opera singer entails more than just his or her voice, the stage, make up and costumes, “stand there and sing well.”
After her big success at Arena Opera Festival (where she celebrated her 15th anniversary) and Puccini Festival, her acclaimed debut at Salzburg Festival with “Adriana Lecouvreur” and at Dubai Opera as Turandot, Opera Star Hui He returns at The Metropolitan Opera with one of her signature roles, Cio Cio San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It will be her third time that she play Puccini’s geisha at the Met. The magic production by Anthony Minghella will be conducted by Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi.
We had the extraordinary opportunity to interview M.me Hui He and to converse about Cio Cio San, her experience at the Met Opera House and much more.
“Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca,” “Turandot”… M.me He, how can I singer develop such a special relationship with a composer? And in your case, was it dictated by a particular reason or it happened by chance?
My career is really connected with Puccini and Verdi, because a lot of their operas opened the doors to so many important opera houses around the world. The first opera I listened in my life was Puccini’s La Bohème. Because of this, I love Puccini and his heroines – they are so close to me. Especially Butterfly, whom I connect to on a special level as a woman of Asian descent.
You’ll be returning to the role of Butterfly at the Met in the next few weeks. What do you like most about this production?
I’m so happy to return to the MET – it is one of the world’s most important temples of music. This will be my fifth time there, and my third as Butterfly. It’s a beautiful production, rich of poetry and tenderness… It’s really moving. The scenes are suggestive and the costumes are wonderful. I’m so excited and I’m looking forward to the opening night on October 11 and to the performance Live HD in movie theaters on November 9! See you there!
Could you tell us more about your debut in Adriana Lecouvreur at Teatro Filarmonico di Verona? How do you prepare yourself for a new role?
I debuted Adriana on March 2019 and I immediately felt in love with this character: she is an actress, the greatest diva of her time, but she is also a woman in love, with great romantic ideals. Our production in Verona was set in late 19th century instead of 18th century, during the golden age of Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and Lyda Borelli This added for a really interesting nuance and aesthetic.
I prepared for this role so much to really get in her world. It’s really a western character, maybe more than Tosca. I sang Adriana also for my house debut at Salzburg Festival last summer with Maestro Marco Armiliato.
Generally, when I prepare a new role I first study the words to understand all the dramaturgic situations where my character is involved, then I study with my wonderful pianist, Alessandro Vitellio and Cristina Orsolato. It’s an interesting process to be able to play and live the character on stage. I hope to play Adriana more in the future, too!
Not only Puccini, but now onto Verdi. What strikes you about Un ballo in maschera?
Verdi lies with Puccini in my heart: I love his heroines, his music and his theatrical sense. Un ballo in maschera is a real masterpiece, and Amelia is a role that I love and I’ve played many times. I’ve been Amelia in Verona for my house debut at Teatro Filarmonico and at the Arena in 2014, in Rome, Palermo, Salerno, Beijing, Zurich, Bordeaux, Hannover. I’ve really gotten to know Amelia. She is a strong woman, a lover, a mother. Throughout Un ballo she is in conflict with herself because she lives a difficult love story with Riccardo, her husband’s best friend. It’s a deep romance that crosses a lot of genres, reminding me of Tristan and Isolde – a tale as old as time.
And how do you change your approach to Verdi’s music in the case of a score like Aida’s, for instance?
Every role needs a different approach, but as I always say I am lucky because my voice is really ductile. This last summer I debuted Turandot and Mimì, two really different roles, I just follow the music and I try to live characters in all their shades. Aida is one of my signature roles, I played it in the most important opera houses all around the world, Arena di Verona, Teatro alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper. It has been the role of my house-debut at The Metropolitan Opera. She is a very complex character. She is a princess but she is a slave at Egypt royal court. She lives within these contrasts and is divided between the love for Radames and the love for her homeland. I connect with her in many ways – she, too, is far from home and nostalgic for her past lives.
Any temptation to approach a work form the 18th-century repertoire?
I’m happy with the repertoire that I’m singing. I studied the 18th-century repertoire, I sang Mozart during my studies at Conservatory in Xi’an, and maybe today I could sing some Mozart roles, like Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni”, but I’m satisfied with my roles, I would love to continue to deepen my roles and to study new operas and characters. I would like to sing Norma, Elisabetta in “Don Carlo”, Suor Angelica in the future…
A great singer from the past with whom you’d love to have lunch and a chat?
Absolutely Maria Callas! She will be my inspiration forever. When I study a role, she is the first singer I listen to. She put her soul in every note. I’d love to chat with her to get some advice.
Which are your three favourite operas?
I can’t choose three operas…I love music and opera!
Some fire-rapid questions: your favourite colour?
Cooking dinner at home or having it in a fancy restaurant?
Our life, as artists, is difficult. We travel all the time, we stay in different hotels and flats, so I like to go in beautiful restaurants when I am traveling. But, if I had the time, I would prefer to cook Chinese dishes for my friends and colleagues.
Your favourite book?
“Moon and Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham.
Your favourite Italian dish?
Pappardelle with truffle!