She is celebrated for her portrayal of Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and has reprised that role more than a hundred times around the world. But it was only when diva Nancy Yuen added teaching to her repertoire that her mother said with relief: “So, you are no longer doing san gong (Cantonese: odd jobs)!”
“My mother could never explain what I do. She would say, ‘My daughter sings, she dresses up, and goes from one place to another,’” Yuen laughs.
To be sure, opera is an odd career choice for one hailing from Hong Kong, where pragmatism is the norm, but Yuen had known from young that she wanted to perform. And it’s not just because of her ear for music – she can replicate any tune on the piano– but also a way to gain attention as the fourth of five children.
Her pursuit took her to London. “Luckily, I didn’t have the pressure of being the eldest or the youngest, or the only son,” Yuen laughs. “So my mother could spare some money for me to be a silly girl for a few years.”
In London, she grew from a girl who shied away from singing in front of her school mates at the Royal Academy of Music, to a young woman who landed her breakthrough role as Madama Butterfly with the Welsh National Opera. Thirty years on, Yuen has established herself as a sought-after soprano worldwide.
Next month, she will be starring in Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Aida. Says Yuen, who believes that opera is about exploring human complexity through voice: “Aida is actually a very complex person. She’s smart and manipulative. A princess enslaved as her country was defeated, she falls in love with Radames from the enemy camp, but exploits his love to save her people. Her country comes before him. For the betrayal, she feels she owes him her life, and returns to die to with him. That takes a lot of guts. So, through rehearsals, we develop the characters in detail and convey real tensions on stage; the jealousy, the betrayal, the passion.”
Today, Yuen shuttles mostly between Hong Kong, where she is the head of vocal studies at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and Singapore, where she serves as the first artistic director of Singapore Lyric Opera.
In many ways, the opera scene in Singapore and Hong Kong has progressed since her debut. She recalls: “People used to ask me which bands I sang in, and if I made the same kind of money as Hong Kong pop stars. But now, things are going in the right direction. There are more young music graduates doing their own projects to bring opera to the crowds.”
She adds: “And I think my family is proud of me today, in a conservative, Chinese sort of way.”
Aida is on at the Esplanade Theatre from June 1 to 6. www.sistic.com.sg