Chinese soprano tackles Wagnerian challenge

An opera fan since childhood, Wang Wei rose to fame with performances in German composer Richard Wagner's most difficult roles.

Though Wagner’s operas are widely considered a “danger zone” for singers, Chinese soprano Wang Wei is confident she can overcome the challenge.

With a traditional opera fan mother, Wang, who is in her 40s, has been attracted to beautiful melodies since childhood. A military art troupe’s visit to her hometown in northeast China hooked her on bel canto.

With good scores at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Wang was recruited by the China National Opera House in 1996. After winning second prize at the 6th World Opera Competition in Marseilles and starring in a couple of works such as Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” Handel’s “Messiah” and Mozart’s “Don Juan,” Wang surprisingly sprang to fame with her interpretations of Wagner’s works.

She sang one of her favorite arias from “Tannhauser” at an audition in the China National Opera House in 2010, making such an impression that she was given the role Elizabeth in the opera.

Since then, Wang has tackled “Lohengrin,” “Tristan and Isolde,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “The Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.”

She says singing Wagner’s works is tiring, but also exciting: “Hearing my own voice penetrating in the concert hall just makes me feel so cool!”

Wang was in Shanghai recently, collaborating with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Hungarian mezzo soprano Ildiko Komlosi in Mahler’s “Resurrection” at Shanghai Symphony Hall.

Ti Gong

Wang Wei, one of China's best sopranos

Q: Is it difficult for you to sing Wagner’s opera?

A: It doesn’t feel difficult, but singing a complete opera  is really demanding, not only in vocal technique but physical effort as well. Most of Wagner’s works are more than four hours, which requires the performers to pace themselves just like a long-distance runner. At only 53 kilograms, I might be considered a really thin soprano for Wagner’s works. But I am not weak. 

I have been a sporty girl since childhood. I still exercise at least 2-3 times a week. Of course, singing in opera is not all about physical fitness. Scientific techniques in using your voice is important, as improper singing may easily hurt a singer’s vocal cords, especially in Wagner’s works. 

Most people know me as the only soprano who sings Wagner’s works, but in fact it took me more than 10 years to actually get there. I started my career with relatively easy works like those by Mozart and Handel, which gradually helped me gain my voice and technique.

Q: Why there are so few sopranos capable of Wagner’s work in China?

A: I think most sopranos are limited by their congenital condition. Many of them are lyrical sopranos who can sing well in warm and emotional arias, yet not suitable for Wagner’s work that requires powerful and penetrating voice. It is a gift, rather than something that you can easily gain through practice. I should say that I am lucky.

Q: What’s your comment on the Chinese market for opera?

A: It is growing quickly. I remember there were only 200 people in the audience when we staged “Tannhauser” for the first time in 2011. But with various music-education activities running on campuses and in communities, I have witnessed a very impressive growth. 

Years later, more than 90 percent of seats were taken when we staged “Lohengrin.” But still there are limited original Chinese operas of good quality. It is hard to get good works when many composers are working in a rush.

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