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Tea Leaves

The remarkable ability of opera to defy cultural appropriation

Chinese soprano He Hui highlights the art's focus on ability, not nationality

Soprano He Hui, right, performs in Opera Hong Kong's "Tosca" in October 2015 with tenor Warren Mok. (Courtesy of Opera Hong Kong)

Opera Hong Kong's new production of "Aida" in October will feature a Chinese soprano playing an African princess singing in Italian.

At a time when cultural appropriation, whitewashing and other actual or perceived artistic infractions are topics of often heated discussion, opera has largely been given a pass. "Madama Butterfly" endures the occasional charge of being Orientalist, yet remains a favorite in Asia as well as with Asian sopranos. Western opera, or rather its audiences, have long been largely blind to color and ethnicity, something all the more remarkable since opera singers are not musicians but also actors, playing parts in a drama with settings usually explicitly defined in time and place.

Yet few expect "Madama Butterfly" always to be sung by an Asian; the African-American soprano Leontyne Price was globally renowned for her portrayals of Cio-Cio-San. Nor is "Aida" usually or even often sung by a soprano of African descent. Perhaps it has something to do with opera itself, the combination of voice, music and lyrics communicating at a level that transcends superficial appearance.

Chinese soprano He Hui -- who is opening the Hong Kong production of "Aida" before flying to New York City for a run of "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan -- is nevertheless still notable. Chinese singers are still relatively rare, but this can no longer be explained merely as a function of opera being a "foreign" art form.

China is -- in spite of having several venerable operatic traditions of its own -- proving increasingly fertile ground for Western opera, both in terms of new opera houses and performances, as well as in the numbers of talented singers. New operas -- notably a neo-Pucciniesque rendition of the 18th-century Chinese classic "Dream of the Red Chamber" -- are being commissioned. China has the size and apparent ambition to play an outsize role in opera, as it does in so many things.

But opera singers mature slowly, requiring considerably more time to reach their peak than it takes to build skyscrapers or bring tech ventures to fruition. There has not been time yet for China to realize this particular potential.

BREAKING NEW GROUND He Hui has been in many ways a trailblazer, which can be put down to a combination of good fortune (she calls it "miraculous"), talent and effort. After a second-place finish in Placido Domingo's Operalia competition in 2000, she was brought to Italy by an agent, picking up and leaving home, family and China behind. I can vouch for the result: I heard her Hong Kong debut as Butterfly and several times since. There is something otherworldly about someone Chinese singing Italian opera as if she were Italian.

He Hui now sings around the world at such houses as the Metropolitan, Milan's La Scala and Vienna's Staatsoper -- a level few Chinese singers have yet reached and perhaps none with such consistency. She is a regular at the annual festival in the Arena in her adopted hometown of Verona, Italy. The world of opera has adopted her back: Far from considering He Hui as Chinese competition, her accomplishments are welcomed.

This is a human story of cross-cultural artistic dedication and success -- but it is also much more than that. China can often seem at loggerheads with the West; the differences can at times seem inherent and insurmountable. It can sometimes even seem difficult to find common topics of conversation, to say nothing of approbation.

The opera house might not be the first place one might think to look for East-West harmony, but there it is, embodied in this Chinese singer who has become one with her Western art and who has been accepted and celebrated not as a Chinese singer, but as a singer.

Sometimes people can themselves be bridges between peoples, partly for what they have themselves accomplished and how they accomplished it: He Hui's integration with Italian opera is the result of a great deal of hard work as well as a willingness to keep her cultural and linguistic ears and eyes open. She has told me that the music comes from heaven, and that she is (just) the vehicle.

But individuals can, through the potential of what they illustrate, also help inform a broader, optimistic narrative. Diversity matters. Ethnicity matters. Culture matters. But diversity can, somewhat counterintuitively, unite as well as divide. It's hard to think of a better example of a shared humanity than a Chinese soprano singing the part of an African princess in Italian.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.

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