The New York Philharmonic's concert performances of Puccini's Tosca conducted by Lorin Maazel (June 12, 14, 17, and 19) are introducing New York audiences to one of China's most beloved singers, the soprano Hui He. Learn that name! While she is still a secret of the cognoscenti in the United States, in Europe she is considered a white-hot property who has achieved international stardom in less than a decade in the Italian lyrico-spinto repertoire of Puccini and Verdi.
She is a fascinating study in contrasts, a fusion of the best of Asian and European musical sensibilities. She possesses an astounding arsenal of subtle vocal colors; virtuosic technique and pinpoint focus make her dark lyric soprano audible over the most sonorous orchestral moments. There is an old-world charm and dignity to her performance, and dramatically she commingles a calm introspection and attention to detail with a raw, passionate edge‹a rare and thrilling combination. This is never more evident than in her portrayal of Tosca, a signature role in which she has made many important debuts, including her triumph at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 2006. "She merited the fine success she had there," recalls Mr. Maazel, who led those performances. "She guides her rich, flexible voice through the wide dynamic range of Puccini's score with power and sensitivity; dramatically, hers is a convincing, compelling Tosca, one that I am pleased to present to our audiences."
For the soprano herself, this New York Philharmonic engagement is one perfect dream come true. "To sing Tosca, one of my favorite roles, in New York with this celebrated Orchestra and this great conductor‹who I believe is the greatest in the world‹is my idea of pure joy," she beams.
Born in 1972 in Shanghai, Hui He later moved to the Old Imperial City of Xian, which she considers home. She attended the conservatory in Shanghai and sang extensively with that city's Grand Theater and Philharmonic. "As a child I fell in love with opera while listening to the radio," says Ms. Hui. "And the conservatories in my country are well furnished with opera on CD and DVD, and wonderful teachers who know European vocal technique from studies in Italy. Contrary to popular belief," she says proudly, "it is very easy to study opera in China!"
Hui He came to international attention in the U.S. during Plšcido Domingo's Operalia competition at the Los Angeles Opera in 2000. The celebrated tenor‹who has since become her mentor‹says, "When it comes to pure talent, basically Hui He has it all. When I first heard her I was impressed not only by the color and beauty of the voice but also by its potential; I heard a lyric soprano that might cross the threshold into certain great roles of the spinto repertoire. I am delighted to see that happening now in large part due to her intelligent, prudent career choices; there is no telling how great she may become."
Through Mr. Domingo, Ms. Hui sang her first important professional engagements at the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera in 2001. He also joined her in singing two concerts, one in her native Shanghai. "The most important moments in my career I owe to Plšcido Domingo," she says, with feeling. She won first prize at the 2002 Voci Verdiane ("Verdi Voices") competition in Busseto, Italy, causing a buzz throughout Europe that resulted in her Italian debut that year at Parma's Teatro Regio. That debut has led to engagements in a wide variety of roles‹from Aida to Manon Lescaut‹in the great European houses, occupying her well into 2010.
Now a truly international talent, Ms. Hui continues to straddle the two cultures that have fed her artistry, noting that "my home in the Old Imperial City is always in my heart," although her career has compelled her to be based in Verona, Italy. "It is wonderful that my dreams of professional success have come true and that I am a beloved artist in my own country."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York-based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.