Thank you very much, Hui He! It’s an honour to interview you for the 4th/2021 issue of OPERA Charm Magazine!
In 2017, a book about your life was published and then, in 2019, a documentary about your life was presented at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna and at Rome Festival Cinema d’iDea after the successful presentations in China and at the Venice Film Festival. The book is entitled Journey to the West – He Hui: A Chinese soprano in the world of Italian Opera. I’d start our conversation exactly from this point: tell us a résumé of the story of the Chinese soprano in the European world of Opera. How did it all start for you?
I always loved to sing. I remember that when I was a child, in the early morning before going to school, I went to the nature around my house and I sang for myself. At High School I sang for a ceremony and my math teacher was really impressed by my voice. Her home neighbor was a singing teacher and she suggested I visit him and ask him what I could do with my voice. He told me [that] it was late to prepare for the [admissions] exam for the conservatoire, but after he heard me singing he accepted the challenge and that year I entered the conservatoire!
There I was the top of the class, I always loved studying and getting better and better. In those years I heard opera for the first time, a recording of La Bohème with Mirella Freni…I didn’t know even a word of Italian but I cried and I felt emotions I’d never felt before. That was the moment I decided to be an opera singer and dedicate my life to singing.
In 1998 the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino was on tour in China, they were looking to cast a second Chinese singing company for their production of Aida, and they choose me: I made my debut in a magnificent Italian-style production, with one of the hardest Verdi roles, a role that became one of my signature roles…It was incredible!
The second turning point of my life was in 1999. That year I was selected for theOperalia Competition in Puerto Rico, but [due to a] problem with my visa I couldn’ go. That year thanks to a big Japanese sponsor, Mr. Noriyoshi Horiuchi, I went for the first time to Italy to Verona (it was the first time I left China) to do a singing masterclass with Italian teachers. That summer Placido Domingo was singing at the Arena. I attended one of his performances and after the show I waited for him at the stage door. I asked him if he could listen me and give me some advices. I explained him how I couldn’t participate in the competition in Puerto Rico. He didn’t have time but he officially invited me to Operalia Competition in Los Angeles the next year. A year after I was in LA and I won the second prize. Maestro Domingo invited me to do some concerts with him in Shanghai and Los Angeles and cast me as cover for Aida at the LA Opera. I also sang Simon Boccanegra with him in Beijing in 2015 for my role-debut as Amelia, and during these years we met really often. I went to his performances and he went to mine, always so kind and generous, giving me some of the most important advice of my career. I’ll always be grateful to him.
The second milestone was my debut in Italy, Tosca at the Teatro Regio di Parma, which was also my European debut. In Parma they planned this Tosca for the great Raina Kabaivanska, who was saying goodbye to the role of which she was an iconic interpreter, with a special gala performance. I had the [opportunity] to study this character under her guidance, she taught me every secret to be Tosca on stage. I’ll always be grateful to her; she taught me how to be an artist.
When in 2019 I sang my Tosca at the Arena di Verona, Maestra Kabaivanska came to see the show and after the second act she came to my dressing room and she told me: “Bravissima! Ti ricordi tutto! (You remember everything!)”. That debut in Parma was thrilling…the most difficult theatre in Italy and with maybe the most popular Italian opera! As I was supposed to sing in the second young company, I went to the opening night, and the audience was not happy with the show. They were not quiet, they screamed and they clearly showed their disapproval. So when my turn arrived I was really scared. But at one point I told myself: “Who is your favourite singer? Maria Callas. Well, from this moment you are not anymore Hui He, you’re Maria Callas…come on, go on stage and sing!”. My performance was great, I remember the silence and the great cheers after “Vissi d’arte”.
After Tosca, many theaters opened their doors and my international career began. I was so lucky to meet great people on my journey: my first manager Giorgio Benati (who told me: “You think only to sing, I’ll think of everything else”), my vocal coaches Cristina Orsolato and Alessandro Vitellio. But I have also to be proud of myself; I never stopped studying. It’s not easy for a young girl coming from China, far from the opera world, to manage this difficult career…and I’m very proud that my opera adventure keeps on going with beautiful roles in beautiful opera houses all around the world! I’m grateful to the audience who always welcome me with kindness and support, and I’m grateful to God who gave me this voice. Every moment on stage is a gift for me, and I will always work to give my best!
Read the entire interview here, in the 4th/2021 issue of OPERA Charm Magazine.0