Q & A: Mezzo Yajie Zhang On The World Premiere Of ‘Orfeo’

By Francisco Salazar

What is it like to crossover from opera to rock music? Better yet,what it is like to fuse both genres into one score?

That was the challenge mezzo-soprano Yajie Zhang had to face for the new opera “Orfeo” by Fay Kueen Wang and Zou Shuang.

A classically trained performer, Zhang has steadily risen the ranks of the opera world performing at the NDR Klassik Open Air of NDR Radiophilharmonie, the Theater Trier, and at the Staatstheater Braunschweig. A recent winner of the Internationaal Vocalisten Concours ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the mezzo-soprano has performed works by Verdi, Purcell, Ravel, Rossini, Bach, and Mozart and has traveled the world to great acclaim.

Now she is making her Beijing Music Festival debut in her first world premiere.

Zhang spoke with OperaWire about the challenges of performing in an immersive rock opera and the experience of creating a new work.

OperaWire: Tell me about your collaboration with the team of this new work?

Yajie Zhang: It’s actually very new for me and I got this opportunity because I won a competition in the Netherlands. Shuang contacted me and she led me to the roles of Hope and Music. This experience has been interesting because I had never sung with a rock band. I live in Germany and this would never be seen. It’s always Mozart and Handel and classical music.

So it’s fresh to sing with a countertenor and a pop singer and that is fresh and exciting for me.

OW: How is the vocal writing and what are the challenges of Fay Kueen Wang’s music?

YZ: It’s really not so difficult to learn the music and it’s not so high or low. It’s really comfortable for me.

The difficult part is working with a band because I am used to a conductor and there isn’t one here. We’re always moving around the stage and it is important not to look at the band. So there are no cues and the music is very free. The other difficult part is that I have to sit around the audience and that is challenging because I cannot move and I don’t always feel comfortable with someone right there. You must always be in the music and always keep the emotion.

OW: How do you adjust to a rock band and the physical demands of the production?

YZ: We rehearsed one month in the summer and that was helpful when we came to space. For this production, the lighting helps a lot. But honestly, I try not think about the stage and just do the music. In the first space I get to dance and sing and in the second it’s more restrained so I get to just sing. There isn’t a lot of movement and I get to work around the stage.

OW: What has Shuang given you as a director and how has she helped with your characters?

YZ: When we rehearsed in the summer, we experimented and we did whatever we wanted. Then when we got to staging, Shuang gave me more ideas for the character and for what I had to do on stage. With the staging, we were able to also find more emotions and a better idea of the cues and everything on the stage.

OW: This is a world premiere. What has the experience been like for you?

YZ: It’s such a pleasure for me and this is a very special project. You don’t see this type of project in Europe or America and for me, it’s a sign that as a classical musician we cannot just stay with the classics. We have to move on and find new ways to do our art.

It’s important for younger audiences. We don’t always want to see a singer in beautiful gowns singing Mozart and as a singer, I have always wanted to do something fresh and new. And who says an opera singer can’t do pop music? We should be able to mix it.

OW: What has it been like to perform at the Beijing Music Festival?

YZ: I just feel like I’m at home with a big family. We have created a family with this production. It’s not like in Germany where it’s all very professional and not as warm of an experience. And this has definitely been a rewarding and unforgettable experience.


InterviewsStage Spotlight