Italian (Opera) for Beginners: At the beginning of her career, Shu-Ying Li takes on her fourth Butterfly

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When asked what will make Shu-Ying Li’s portrayal of Madame Butterfly different in the upcoming production of Opera Santa Barbara (their 24th), the soprano looks down for a few seconds, lost in thought, until surfacing with a broad smile. “Because I’m Shu-Ying!” She then bursts into a laugh, which then spreads to those around her. Miss Li knows that what she has said has made herself sound somewhat of the diva, not befitting someone just beginning a professional career.

But she also knows that its her self-confidence that has gotten her this far, thousands of miles away from her native China, along with dashes of good fortune and helping hands.

The role of Madame Butterfly is one that still goes to more non-Asian sopranos than Asian, although in recent years many able singers from China, Japan, and elsewhere have made the role their own.

It still comes down to the voice, and Miss Li has that covered. During rehearsals, where the singers perform tracking vocals, singing with only enough power to be heard, saving their voices for the big night, Miss Li still has the power to enthrall. Accompanied by only a piano as the company works through the acts in Abravanel Hall on the Music Academy of the West campus, the soprano performs the wedding scene, where Butterfly marries Colonel Pinkerton. Her tone is pure and crystalline, golden. Surrounded by the rest of the cast, most of whom are decked out in T-shirts, shorts, and sandals-this is California after all-so that figuring out who are the Japanese aristocrats and who are the American officers is not worth the effort, Shu-Ying is still able to make us care about her character’s fate. At the time I saw the rehearsals, only Miss Li and Layna Chianakas as her friend Suzuki, were wearing kimonos (and not the gorgeous ones they will wear on stage), easing their way into the role.

Although it’s perhaps too easy to journalistically conflate Butterfly and Miss Li’s experience, with cultures intermingling, it’s the soprano herself who’s been thinking about the similarities. “I grew up in a very traditional family in a very traditional place,” she says, referring to the Chinese city of Tsing-Tao, known not just for the brewery, but for being the birthplace of Confucius. “There are so many rules for what men should do, for what women should do,” she explains. “And sometimes that’s good.”

But she relates how strict rules of marriage caused one neighbor’s daughter be disowned when she married a Muslim man against the family’s wishes. “The father told her, ‘I will never talk to you again.'” That experience forms the backbone of her interpretation of Butterfly, the young woman who gives up her Shinto religion and culture for the Catholicism of Pinkerton. “It’s so amazing what Madame Butterfly goes through,” she says. “Her belief in Pinkerton is that strong.” When asked if she thinks Butterfly is naïve to believe that Pinkerton will return (he does of course, but with an American wife in tow), Miss Li disagrees. “She has no reason to doubt him.”

This is Miss Li’s fourth time in the role-the most recent being with the Connecticut Opera this year, and before that in Hong Kong and Providence, Rhode Island. Each time, she says, she is allowed to “dig deeper into the role, to find more of the spirituality, more of the passion.”

Always loving to sing as a child, it was only in high school that she truly turned to music. “My parents wanted me to become a nurse or a teacher,” she said. It was a college friend who pushed her, telling her she should meet a voice teacher she knew. As has often been the case in Miss Li’s life, one listen was all it took. The teacher took her on as a pupil, and for her first year out of high school, she learned traditional Chinese singing, joining a five-student group on a scholarship to a nearby university. From the beginning, her parents were supportive, and her progress was rapid enough that a year later she was teaching the students herself. “Seeing a student progress is exciting, but as for a teaching career I thought, maybe later.”

She also was beginning to feel that the nasal tones of traditional Chinese singing weren’t for her. She heard an aria by Renata Scotto, “O Mio Babino,” and knew that her future path lead to opera. Mme. Zhou Xioao Yan of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Opera Center took her in and pointed the way. “In traditional singing, I felt that the voice didn’t belong to me. My voice should be rounder.”

Her training led to the attention of a Japanese businessman, who believed in the talents of China-born opera singers, and took Miss Li and others from the school to Budapest, where she eventually took part in an international competition. Among 600 contestants, and by performing Musetta’s Aria from La Boheme, she took home the grand prize. One year later she came to New York and tracked down Ruth Falcon, the voice teacher she trains with to this day.

“She told me, ‘You have a Chinese face with a Western body!'” she laughs when talking about their first meeting. “After the first lesson, I realized this was the technique I’ve been looking for.” Through Ms. Falcon, she auditioned for the Mannes College of Music and was awarded a full scholarship. “For three years I lived in New York out of a suitcase.”

Her English speaking ability developed alongside her Italian comprehension. “I don’t always know what I’m singing,” she says, “But the music tells the story, the harmonic changes carry the emotion.” For regular conversation, she learned from example. Four years later, Miss Li is so settled in her foreign tongue that she’s taking on an American accent.

Learning Western culture has its advantages for her career. Miss Li confesses not to have known the cultural history or reputation of Puccini’s opera. “When I first did Butterfly for the Rhode Island company, I was told, ‘This is the most difficult role for a soprano.’ But I didn’t know at the time. So I didn’t feel any fear. When I first performed the role I looked down afterwards and saw that the audience crying. I thought, ‘Ohhh, this is good.'” Again that smile beams out.

She’s easily fallen in love with Santa Barbara now that’s she’s here, but soon Miss Li will be traveling again, with La Traviata back in New York and a solo recital in Indonesia rounding out the year. “But I love the West Coast. I took one look here and thought, wow, I’m in trouble.” Maybe Santa Barbara audiences will be the ones watching the horizons soon, not Mme. Butterfly, wondering when rising star Miss Li will return.

Opera Santa Barbara Presents Puccini’s Madame Butterfly
Presented at the Lobero Theater, October 4 and 10 at 8 p.m. and October 12 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are available at the Lobero Theatre Box Office by calling (805) 963-0761 or on line at www.lobero.com

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