Q & A: Soprano Keng Li on the Challenges of ‘La Traviata’ & Her Operatic Debut at WeiwuyingBy David Salazar
For many opera singers, the possibility of returning to the stage in front of a live audience is something truly unique and special, and this is undoubtedly the case for soprano Keng Li, who will be one of two sopranos, to perform the iconic role of Violetta. Not only will this be her role debut, but her appearance at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts Weiwuying will represent her operatic debut at the arts center in her hometown.
The Kaohsiung native is now based in Italy and has performed with a number of major European organizations including the National Opera Bucharest, the Wuppertal Opera House, and the Teatro Massimo Bellini, among others. She has won major awards at the Antonin Dvorak Singing Competition, the Ningbo International Vocal Competition, and the Valsesia Music International Competition, among others.
OperaWire recently spoke to Li about her experience in 2020 while in lockdown and how it feels to make debut at the art centers with her first-ever Violetta.
OperaWire: This is your operatic debut in Weiwuying! Congratulations. What excites you most about performing an opera in this venue? You sang concerts there before. What are you looking forward to in terms of performing an opera?
Keng Li: The entire Weiwuying complex, which opened in October 2018, is the best venue in Asia now. I was lucky to have performed in the Weiwuying Concert Hall before, but I believe that performing opera—in the Opera House, fully staged with sets, costumes and many other performers—will literally ignite the entire space.
OW: Additionally, this is your role debut in one of the most iconic opera roles of all time. Who is Violetta in your view? How is she different or similar to you personally?
KL: In Verdi’s operas, the female leading roles are often quite heroic. To me, Violetta can be any woman with self-confidence, with ideals in her life and career, with hopes for love. She’s strong in the outside but soft-hearted. Although she isn’t portrayed as a total heroine, she has the courage to love and is willing to sacrifice herself for “the bigger picture,” which makes her heroic in spirit. I do sympathize with Violetta’s inner strength and her attitude about love.
OW: Do you have any favorite musical or dramatic moments in “La Traviata?”
KL: My absolute favorite is the scene with Germont in Act two, when I sing “Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura…” By that time, Violetta has already decided, in her heart, that she will leave Alfredo. God knows she must’ve been resolute; no one could fathom the pain she was going through. Not long before, she was brave, giving up everything for love. Yet in return, she got someone convincing her to give up everything she chose. All she wanted was to be remembered for her sacrifice in helping Alfredo and his family, and she felt it was worth it. She could withstand all the pain of disappearing forever from her lover’s life.
OW: What is the most challenging aspect of interpreting this role? What are its particular challenges and what is needed to overcome them? What have you discovered about yourself as an artist in preparing this role?
KL: I believe each of the three acts in “La Traviata” literally requires a different voice. The first act has parties as a game of love unfolds. By the second act, she encounters Germont, who pleads with her to leave Alfredo and sacrifice her hard-earned love. By the end of the third act, she struggles against death. Really, you need different “states of mind” to sing this opera. I believe the biggest challenge is how I employ my voice.
OW: You’ve sung a number of other roles, including Cio-Cio San and Aida. How does Violetta differ vocally from those roles?
KL: As I mentioned, the vocal qualities required to sing Violetta are special, as if the three acts are written for different types of soprano: the first act is for “soprano leggero” or “lirico leggero.” But the demands get heavier and heavier as the opera progresses. Cio-Cio San and Aida, however, have very clearly defined voices, and the requisite technique is different.
OW: Much of the opera world is still shut down. What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to not only sing in a production, but to do so for a live audience? What are you looking forward to most? What are some concerns that you have?
KL: From March 2020 onward, I’ve had many performances canceled because of the pandemic. So many opera and stage performances around the world have been canceled, not only affecting singers and actors, but also tens of thousands of people who work behind the scenes. I really sympathize with all of them.
I feel a deep sense of gratitude to be here performing on stage in Taiwan. I’m grateful not only to have the opportunity to perform under such trying circumstances but also for the Taiwan audience, for music lovers. Just thinking that soon all of us can walk freely in and out of a theatre to enjoy a performance. Lockdown has shut down so many performances, so we must treasure any performance not affected by the lockdown.
OW: The yearlong shutdown has been a very challenging time for artists. But many found ways to stay creative during this time. What kinds of activities or projects did you engage with during the period of lockdown?
KL: First of all, I could spend time with my family (nobody has the excuse that they don’t have the time now). They are the strength that supports me. I’ve also learned how to face those 14-day quarantines, to think quietly and calmly, and learn to live with myself. And exercise regularly to build up stamina when I perform. I also made some YouTube videos to engage the friends who supported me.
OW: Talking more broadly about your career, what was your first experience with opera? When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?
KL: I played Cio-Cio San at the Romanian National Opera in Bucharest in 2014. I was studying at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia di Roma when I realized I wanted to pursue an opera career.
OW: What is one major life lesson this career as taught you?
KL: No matter whether you’re performing music or living your life, you should always work hard constantly and always try to excel.
OW: Who are your greatest inspirations?
KL: So many people! During my vocal education, I feel I’ve stood on the shoulders of many great singers. Here are two examples. Even before I started singing, my father would play Luciano Pavarotti’s CDs. His graceful, unpretentious technique, clear diction, and voice “kissed by God” set my heart right from the beginning to learn bel canto. I can watch Piero Cappuccilli’s “Nemico della patria” a hundred times and never tire. His perfect command of vocal control and dramatic tension fills me with awe: this is truly an opera performance!
OW: What are some of your career goals and dreams? Any roles you dream of singing in the future?
KL: My career goal is simple: to give all my heart and energy to the heritage of operatic culture, to be a good influence on the operatic scene. Future roles I dream of include Leonora (“Il Trovatore”), Liù (“Turandot”), Maddalena (“Andrea Chenier”) and also Leonora (“Fidelio”). My ultimate goal is Turandot! I know that’ll take me many, many years!