Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an opera singer in Hong Kong? Read on as Vivian Yau, a young professional soprano singer, tells us all about it.
Now that the pandemic situation in Hong Kong is relatively stable (thank god), nightlife and entertainment events are making their comeback – including live music and concerts! So there’s no time like the present to head to the concert hall for some jazz and Broadway hits. On Saturday, 11 September, soprano singer Vivian Yau – alongside Hong Kong Sinfonietta and conductor Ken Lam – will be performing An American Songbook. For the arts and culture enthusiasts amongst you, this is the chance to get back in touch with your inner musician! Read on for our interview with Vivian as she discusses being an opera singer in Hong Kong.
An interview with Vivian Yau, a soprano opera singer from Hong Kong
Hey Vivian! Thank you for chatting with us. Have you always wanted to be an opera singer growing up?
Hmm no, not really. I don’t think I had a clear idea of who I wanted to be. But, I was in choir in primary school. Then when I was around ten years old, my music teacher encouraged me to take part in solo singing competitions in the Hong Kong Schools’ Music Festival, so I started taking voice lessons. I realised I was quite good at singing; I felt natural doing it, and I liked doing it, so I kept at it. I don’t think there was a clear point in time when I felt: this is it, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I just kind of went with the flow… And things happened organically.
What’s on your playlist?
I really like old-school singers, as they could work with composers from their time. They knew the style really well and it’s always interesting to hear how they used to sing. After all, it’s very different to how we sing now. Maria Callas is one of my favourites. I also have a bunch of LP records – I used a gramophone for them when I was in the US. And there isn’t just classical music on my playlist! I enjoy listening to jazz a lot, too, because it relaxes me.
On the topic of jazz, we have a couple of jazzy songs and Broadway musical pieces in the upcoming An American Songbook concert as well. I’m excited to dip my toes in these genres as I don’t usually perform them, even though I love listening to them!
How are operas and musicals different from each other, in the performer’s point of view?
The biggest difference for us performers is that opera singers are not miked, so we have to use our bodies to project more vocally. On the other hand, having a microphone allows you to play around with different effects, such as singing very softly, or in a speech-like tone (Sprechgesang). For An American Songbook, I won’t be miked; I’ll still be singing with my classically trained voice. So this will be an interesting crossover, and I’ll be performing some stylistic variations.
What’s your favourite song in the An American Songbook programme and why?
I have two favourites, the first one being “I Bought Me A Cat” (1950) by Aaron Copland. It’s a super fun song, as I get to imitate animal sounds throughout. A new animal gets added every verse, so the song starts with a cat, then the second verse talks about a duck and a cat, followed by a duck, a goose, and a cat… By the end of the song, I have eight or nine animals! It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s fun to perform.
My other favourite item in the programme is “Somewhere” from West Side Story (1957). It’s a really touching song and I love the lyrics. The main message conveys hope that everything will be better someday. I believe a lot of people will be able to relate to this song right now, seeing how the past few years have been tough on all of us not just in Hong Kong, but around the world.
The thing I love the most about An American Songbook is that everything I sing will be in English. This is rare for me, because I normally sing in other European languages. Usually, the audience would have to refer to subtitles or translations in the programme booklet. Thus, it’s extra special for me to be able to perform in a language that the local audience understands. It takes away the distance between us and makes us more directly connected.
Why did you choose to come back to Hong Kong from the US?
I came back to Hong Kong because of COVID-19! I thought the pandemic was only gonna last a few months, so I left the US quite quickly; I even left most of my luggage there. During my first couple of months back, I completed my Masters degree over Zoom. Since then, I’ve been teaching and performing. I’m glad I came back to Hong Kong, because I can actually perform here, as opposed to the situation in the US and Europe – although, admittedly, I was a little resentful at first!
What’s a day in the life of an opera singer in Hong Kong?
During the day, I practise and teach. It’s important for us singers to work on our craft everyday. I usually practise between one and two hours a day. Some people practise longer, and others less, but I think the time isn’t the most important factor here; rather, consistency is the key. The funny thing is that my dog loves to sing with me – it’s not cute, it’s just loud! Luckily, I have nice neighbours (which is such a blessing in Hong Kong!), so I’ve never received noise complaints.
Aside from practising, opera singers in Hong Kong also focus on teaching, for which there are lots of opportunities. Furthermore, it’s important for us to stay in shape, especially in terms of cardio and flexibility. So, after I rehearse in the evening (if there are performances coming up), I like to go running late at night. After working out, I do translation and memorisation work at night, since my brain is the most productive after midnight.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an opera singer in Hong Kong?
I’m still new to the opera scene here, because I was overseas for a long time. So, I’ve had to adapt and find my way around the network a little. I wouldn’t say those were huge challenges, but it’s definitely been a readjustment for me. Teaching is a new venture for me, too, as I hardly did any of that when I was back in the US.
There’ve been some funny misconceptions about opera singers in Hong Kong, too. I was asked before: Why are you not fat?! And how are you allowed to have purple hair?! Well, my answer was: Why not? I’m still getting hired, so something must be working! Also, opera singers aren’t always divas nowadays. For one, I don’t think I’m a diva; I think I’m a pretty normal person, really. In fact, opera singers only used to be glamorous maybe 50 years ago, but now, we’re just like any other performer. There’s no diva status; we don’t get special treatment. It’s a tough life, TBH. We have to travel a lot, rehearse a lot; there’s tonnes of preparation and hard work behind every performance.
Do you think there is a disconnect between classical music and other types of music in Hong Kong?
Yes, I think there’s a disconnect not just in Hong Kong, but in the rest of the world, too. People often feel that classical music is only for the rich and educated elite. However, I think a lot of people have been trying to tackle this gap. It’s been increasingly popular (at least in the US) for composers to write new, contemporary operas that reflect society today, whether about relatable topics, everyday life, and the community – not about some duchess in a palace in the 18th century. While there doesn’t seem to be much of an audience for this new type of opera in Hong Kong yet, I’d love to work on something like that here. I believe it’s worth doing, because it’ll help change people’s perspective on opera.
What are your future plans?
I’m hoping to live and work in Europe at some point. Most of the repertoire I sing is from Europe, so it’ll be ideal for me to stay and experience the culture there. Plus, Europe has an amazing opera scene! That said, I’m happy to work anywhere. I’m still young, so I’m open to travelling and relocating. Plus, I’m not the type of person to plan everything in detail, so I’ll just continue doing what I like to do – sharing my music and my art, and connecting with people through them.
Moreover, I feel blessed that I’ve had an excellent support system, in the sense that my family has always been supportive of what I do. So, I’d like to give back to the audience in a similar way. I hope that the people who come to my performances can feel some sort of healing and resonance; our shared space and presence in the concert hall can be a refuge from the stresses of today’s society. Now that live music is coming back, we can once again explore the uniqueness of live performances together. If I can touch someone through my performance, it’s success for me.