Essays / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Excerpt from Journey to the West: He Hui: A Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera

by Melanie Ho


Melanie Ho, Journey to the West: He Hui: A Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera, Abbreviated Press, 2017. 84 pgs.


The Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux is one of France's, and Europe's, grand old opera houses, dating as it does from 1780, making it only two years younger than La Scala. The building's illustrious past includes the 1789 premiere of the ballet La Fille Mal Gardée and hosting the French Parliament in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War.

When He Hui transformed into Cio-Cio-san for the first time, she did it at this theatre with the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2003, marking her debut on the international stage. The opportunity to sing at Bordeaux had also come through her Operalia connections; impressions she had made in Los Angeles in 2000 through Plácido Domingo's competition continued to follow her around the world, this time to France where Thierry Fouquet, the director at Bordeaux, had also served on the Operalia jury. He proposed to He Hui and her agent Giorgio Benati that she make her debut as Butterfly at his theatre, perhaps seeing in her the potential to be one of the world's most in-demand Butterflies.

While an Asian Butterfly is not a rarity, it is hardly de rigueur either. In many ways, the art of opera is blind to race: audiences accept a Chinese soprano playing an Ethiopian princess, an African-American playing Italian noblewoman or a Swedish soprano as the Chinese Turandot. What matters—what has always mattered—is the voice. In the past few decades, and especially with the advent of live and high-definition broadcasts, movement and acting have taken on greater importance. Cio-Cio-san, for example, is not just Japanese, but a fifteen-year old girl and sopranos are thus tasked with making a character often half or sometimes a quarter their age feel believable. It is now the expectation; when a soprano's voice works but the movements and facial expressions are off-key, the audience takes note.

And yet, despite all this, an Asian Butterfly—an excellent Asian Butterfly—is a bonus, sought after because she already looks the part and because the movements, the voice feel intuitive. Voice, in Butterfly, is so important that it is explicitly remarked upon. After Cio-Cio-san visits the American consulate in Nagasaki, Consul Sharpless comments on the allure of Butterfly and her voice—he hears her, but does not see her—to Pinkerton.

Ier l'altro, il Consolato sen'venna a visitar!
Io non la vidi, ma l'udii parlar.
Di sua voce il mistero l'anima mi colpì.
Certo quando e sincer l'amor parla così.

(The day before yesterday,
she came to the Consulate
I didn't see her, but I heard her speak.
The mystery in her voice touched my heart.
Certainly true love speaks like this.)

He Hui describes an effortlessness to playing Butterfly. Having studied the character deeply, she understands the character's motivations and dreams, but also her dilemma and her struggle between her family and her traditions and her love for Pinkerton. She gives up everything—family, religion—for him, and it makes living with the betrayal all the more impossible. He Hui also gave up her family and her country to chase her dream, but unlike Butterfly, He Hui admittedly had the support of her family. They had originally been hesitant about her proposed career path, but as they saw her studying and pursuing her dream with both persistence and perseverance, they began to give a little—piano, piano. It might not have been what they had envisioned for her but He Hui was finding success doing what she loved and they threw their support behind her, later visiting her as she performed around the world and speaking with their daughter daily, some days for hours.

A year later, in 2004, He Hui returned to the role of Cio-Cio-san, and if the success of her Bordeaux debut had been missed, there was no missing her now. Earlier that summer, she reprised the role at the Puccini Festival in Tuscany's Torre del Lago and then performed the role a third time in Vienna.

In Vienna, she soared, the critics adoring her beautiful, tragic Butterfly. Of her performance at the Volksoper, the Wiener Zeitung called it "the best Butterfly you could wish for," Der Standard described her performance as "breathtaking," writing that she had taken the tragedy on the stage and had made it seem real, while Kurier called her "a real discovery." There could not be higher praise, especially for a role so well-known to both opera fans and non-opera fans alike, with countless interpretations, reinventions and adaptations around the world. Madama Butterfly is one of opera's most cinematic stories, with all eyes on Cio-Cio-san; there are other characters, yes, but this is Butterfly's show.

Everything about her performance in Vienna impressed: the singing, yes, but also the way she captivated Pinkerton—and the audience. In the first Act, Pinkerton describes his fascination with her in terms of movement:

Certo costei m'ha colle ingenue arti invescato.
Lieve qual tenue vetro soffiato
alla statura, al portamento sembra figura da paravento.
Ma dal suo lucido fondo di lacca
come con subito moto si stacca;
qual farfelletta svolazza e posa
con tal grazietta silenziosa,
che di rincorrerla furor m'assale —
se pure infrangerne dovessi l'ale.

(She's certainly bewitched me
with her innocent airs.
As light as blown glass, her figure,
her bearing seems like a figure off a screen.
But she instantly frees herself
from the glossy lacquer background.
This little butterfly flutters and
settles with such silent grace,
That I am overtaken by the urge to pursue her,
Even if I have to tear off her wings.)

This—the figure off a lacquer screen—was what He Hui portrayed, graceful and soft, and the emotion reverberated throughout the theatre. It was already evident that this would become one of her signature roles.

But the emotion was also real: in these early days, she would be moved to tears as Butterfly realised Pinkerton's betrayal. The tears were an expression of the profound intensity she felt, and it was something that she needed to reign in: crying was not good for singing. She played Butterfly with her heart, that natural connection to the role combining with her intense study of every word and every phrase. But there was also joy: she felt great joy as she sang and then saw herself as someone who could pass on this feeling to those in the audience.


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