Q & A: Yongzhao Yu & Esther Maureen Kelly on Working with the New Jersey Symphony & ‘The Song of the Yangtze River’

By Francisco Salazar

On July 20, the New Jersey Symphony will perform at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.

The performance will see Maestra Xian Zhang conducting the featured soloists Shanghai Isaac Stern-winning violinist Nancy Zhou (violin), Chopin-competition prize-winner Chelsea Guo (piano), Esther Maureen Kelly (soprano), and Yongzhao Yu (tenor) in a program entitled “East/West: A Symphonic Celebration.”

The program will feature a wide variety of music inspired by China and will see Kelly and Yu perform “The Song of the Yangtze River,” a traditional Chinese song by Wang Shiguang.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with the two singers about the upcoming performance and the significance of performing this piece at Alice Tully Hall.

OperaWire: How did you first hear about this piece and when did you get involved with the project?

Yongzhao Yu: First of all, it’s my honor to be a part of this project, “East/West: A Symphonic Celebration” means a lot to the musicians in the world. It’s like a bridge that connects different cultures in the music world. My first exposure to this project was in 2015 which is the iSING! international Young Artists Festival. iSING invited young vocal artists from all over the world to present a musical feast for the audiences in China. It’s a key project for cultural exchanges between Chinese and foreign cultures. What rapture to enjoy the foreign artists to sing Chinese songs in this language, I’m so excited for this opportunity to sing “The song of the Yangtze River” at Alice Tully Hall.

Esther Maureen Kelly: My initial introduction to “The Song of the Yangtze River” was in 2018 while singing with the iSING! International Festival in SuZhou, China for the first time. Since then, I have performed it multiple times over the years in several different arrangements. I was first involved with the Brindisi, on the other hand, as a chorister in the Singapore Lyric Opera when I was 15. While I grew up in South East Asia (hence the Singapore Lyric Opera affiliation) and had sung a handful of pieces in Bahasa Malay and Mandarin Chinese, my knowledge and interest in studying Chinese music was not fully piqued until I joined the iSING! Festival and was immersed in the interpretation of Chinese music sung with traditional Bel Canto technique. After that first year, I was fortunate enough to be invited back yearly – amazingly even through COVID – and it was through iSING! that I was introduced to “East/West: A Symphonic Celebration” in November 2021, when we performed a number of pieces that, akin to this concert, beautifully merged compositions by both classical western and Chinese composers.

OW: Tell me about the writing for this work and how does it compare to other pieces you have performed?

YY:  I will sing two songs in the concert. One is “The song of the Yangtze River” and another one is the “Brindisi” from “La Traviata.” So for me, as an opera singer, “La Traviata” is more like my routine work. But “The song of the Yangtze River” is totally different. First of all, we’re so excited that I can sing in our language and then this is a Lied, as opposed to opera, you need to build the whole picture or the story in 3 minutes. It’s completely a different interpretation.

EMK: So much of the wonderful Chinese repertoire that I have been working on recently (particularly with the iSING! Festival) blurs the line between traditional
Chinese music and Bel Canto. The composer, Wang Shiguang, trained in China’s Central Conservatory of Music after the Cultural Revolution, and blended
themes of nationalistic pride with stirring music that is sung in the Bel Canto style. While working in China, I have sung pieces that ranged from Pingtan (a style of music distinct to Suzhou, dating back to the Song Dynasty) to Chinese popular songs from the mid 1900s. This particular piece contains much of the national sentiment that permeates music from that era.

OW: Tell me about the structure of the work and do you have a favorite moment in the piece?

YY: This is a great question and I want to share my favorite part in “Yangtze River.” There is a sentence that has no word, but just a vowel ‘a.’ But I can feel the simplest part is often what the composer put the most heart and soul into. Many years ago, I was there, very close to the Yangtze River. I could almost feel the water droplets splashing on my face. At that moment I saw its power and epic and I suddenly understand why people like to compare this to the mother river. So when I sing this sentence, I feel as if I were there again.

EMK: “The Song of the Yangtze River” is essentially a strophic song that expounds upon the greatness of the Yangtze river. The melody is incredibly catchy and has been ingrained in my memory since the first time I heard it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have a favorite moment in the piece, as it is quite short, but I have always enjoyed the imagery created by the opening line of the river running “from the snow-capped mountains… to the sea.”

OW: What are the biggest challenges in performing a piece like this?

YY: Like I said, “Yangtze River” is a Lied which is different from the opera. The singer needs to depict a full and gorgeous picture in 3 minutes, especially in another language, so a good presentation is the biggest challenge for the singer.

EMK: For me, the greatest challenge to performing in Chinese is finding the balance between text clarity and the maintenance of a legato line. Mandarin lends itself beautifully to Bel Canto, but, as with any other new language, finding the optimal placement for each distinct vowel and consonant sound within a legato line requires some time to get accustomed to.

OW: How does this piece work with the rest of the program? Why do you think it works well for the finale of the concert?

YY: In our Concert, as its title “East/West: A Symphonic Celebration” implies, we have many kinds of instruments playing with the orchestra, such as the piano, violin, and especially our traditional instruments guzheng, pipa, flute, and xiao. Moreover, its rich repertoire makes our concert so worthwhile. “The Song of the Yangtze River” as the finale of the concert, we feel singing might be the simplest and the most direct and moving way to express the Celebration, and this melody is so familiar to most of us. We shall share with the world our sentiments of building bridges for peace, love, and prosperity by singing this music from the bottom of our hearts.

EMK: “The Song of the Yangtze River” is a wonderful finale for the concert as it is a distinctly Chinese piece that is universal in its style and scope. While the text
speaks of a specific location, the sentiment and universality of the impressive music is recognizable to any listener regardless of their background.

OW: What excites you about performing with the New Jersey Symphony?

YY: This is my first time performing with the New Jersey Symphony and I’m very excited. In 2019, the New Jersey Symphony presented an amazing concert for the Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, I was not there but we know that the talented musicians in New Jersey Symphony are all willing to be the bridge between the east and west cultures. It will be a big family full of love.

EMK: I am excited to perform both the Brindisi and “The Song of the Yangtze River” with the New Jersey Symphony, and hearing the interpretation that they bring to the music given their experience with new and Chinese music.

OW: Have you ever worked with Xian Zhang? If so, what do you like about her conducting style? If not, what excites you about it?

YY: I’m so looking forward to working with her. It’s going to be my first time working with Maestro Zhang. But we almost worked together two years ago. In 2020, Maestro Xian Zhang was going to direct “La Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was going to be in this production as a cover singer in the role of Rodolfo. But because of the pandemic, it was canceled, so this makes me cherish this opportunity even more.

EMK: I have not had the pleasure of working with Xian Zhang in the past, but I am excited to experience the energy, vivacity, and wealth of experience that I
understand she brings to her performances.

OW: Tell me about performing at Alice Tully Hall and what you hope audiences take away from the performance?

YY: When I rehearsed and performed at the Met, I walked by Alice Tully Hall many times, and I used to see the audiences coming out of the Hall, full of contentment on their faces. This is Alice Tully Hall’s charm. So after our concert, I hope to see happy faces from the audience who I hope will be more curious about and attracted to Chinese music.

EMK: I hope that the audience departs with a greater appreciation of the wealth of Chinese music that exists. Interest in the repertoire appears to be consistently
growing, but I think it would be wonderful to see more singers exploring Chinese art songs and opera to the point that they gain the popularity and appreciation
within the western community that is currently held by more familiar languages. Hopefully these concerts and programs like the iSING! Festival will continue to
encourage people to push the boundaries of their musical experience.


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