Sunday, October 13, 2013

Interview with Jessica Chen

So I had a pleasant phone chat with Jessica Chen Hsing-An earlier this week. Jessica is the newly appointed head of vocal studies at NAFA, as well as having sung the title-role in the Singapore Lyric Opera's 2008 production of Turandot. While others commented on her lack of volume, I was impressed by natural musicality and heartfelt rendition of the role. She will next be appearing at the Singapore Lyric Opera's gala concert of Verdi music on 24 October 2013 (Thursday).

While a busy schedule did not allow for a face-to-face session, Jessica was pleasant and forthcoming on the phone, offering interesting information with little prompting. We discussed her current teaching gig in Singapore, switching voices from mezzo to dramatic soprano, and differences in music education between Taiwan and Singapore. Her's a short introduction to her background followed by a transcript of our conversation:

Dr. Jessica Chen Hsing-An earned a D.M.A. in Vocal Performance from the University of Californa, Los Angeles and is the head of vocal studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). After seven years as a mezzo‐soprano, she has developed her career as a soprano through the role of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Major roles include the title role in Puccini’s Turandot, the title role in Verdi’s Aida, Donna Elvira from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Brünnhilde from Wagner’s Die Walküre, Madame de Croissy from Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Major performances include the Thai Princess’ birthday celebration, the King of Malaysia’s charity concert, the Singapore Lyric Opera’s 20th anniversary concert, the Taiwanese 100th anniversary National Celebration Day, NAFA’s 75th anniversary concert as well as engagements at the Singapore Lyric Opera and Opera UCLA.

The Mad Scene: Firstly, tell us how do you find your current teaching position at NAFA?

Jessica Chen: I was staying in the US, having just completed by doctorate and was planning to work as my professor's assistant. It was then I found out that Lim Shieh-Yih had passed away. I have came to Singapore to perform many times for the past ten years, but they were only short trips. I performed with the SLO, Hallelujah Oratorio Society and so on. I saw on Facebook that he had passed away, and that he taught at NAFA. Nancy Yuen had invited me to give masterclasses when she was still there. I heard that the head of music no is Maestro Lim Yau. I had worked with him in Leong Yoon-Pin's opera Bunga Mawar, but have had no contact with him since. I sent him an email via the SSO, asking if there are any vacancies at NAFA, and he asked if I can come and teach. My treacher said it’s a great opportunity, so I came last February.

Lim passed away so suddenly, so many of his students had suddenly lost their mentor. He was a very attentive and caring teacher, so many students lost their support. When I came over I was very busy, with no time to return to Taiwan. During summer vacations I returned to the US to help with my teacher’s project. My last appearance in Taiwan was for its's 100th National Day celebrations, where I performed Alto I in Mahler's 8th Symphony with the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra.

The Mad Scene: I was at that concert! It was wonderful and I got to hear Iréne Theorin too as Soprano I. You seem to be more well-known in Taiwan as a mezzo-soprano, whereas in Southeast Asia you are more well-known as a dramatic soprano. Is a multi-faceted voice like yours trainable, or is that something that you are born with?

Jessica: I started singing professionally in 1994 as a mezzo till 2000. Dr. Cheng Qiu-Sheng, the first artistic director of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, said to me after a concert if I have thought about being a soprano? I sang soprano in my university days but doing light stuff such as Despina's arias. I thought I could be a soprano, but did not think much of it. I was in my 30s then, so its been 5 years since 1994. My first soprano role was Turandot, a very difficult role. Chen spoke to me about taking on the role. 'Do you want me to sing Liu?', I thought? But no, he wanted me to take on the title role! But it seemed to be too much for me, and I told him so. I asked him if I could learn other things first. He picked 'Ritorna vincitor', the first aria of Aida, and coached me in it. We also sang La forza del destino, not just the aria but highlights as well. And so I've managed to change voices. There’s a process to follow, a lot to understand. But since life is about taking risks, I thought that this is one risk that I should take.

In 2001, the Chong Shan Hall in Taipei had completed renovations, including upgrades to their acoustics. The Taipei Symphony performed Beethoven's 9th Symphony and I sang the soprano part. I also got to sing In questa reggia in the first half of the programme. Although it still needed improvements, it was nonetheless an achievement just to have gotten through it!

Even then, many companies still continued to hire me as a mezzo. In 2000 I won the Chinese Singer of the World Competition in New York, followed by the Malaysian International Vocal Competition. While I was in Malaysia someone told me that Penang was producing Turandot. The Penang Arts Council was producing it. They were searching for 2 casts, one from London and one from Asia. I told them that I sang the aria but not the role. They said 'aren’t you a mezzo'? I told them that Maestro Chen told me to sing soprano, but its not a heavy voice. They asked if I wanted to come and give the role a try. On the way to Penang for a concert, I passed a DVD of my performance of the aria to PAC, they sent it to their consultants in Germany and I got the role. So Turandot was my first full role as a soprano. This was followed by Aida in 2006 and Die Wakure's Brunnhilde in 2007, both at the Bangkok Opera.

The Mad Scene: Having sung full roles by Verdi and Wagner, what are your thoughts on their music?

Jessica: Both Verdi's and Wagner's music are very different, but are both very dramatic in their own way. Wagner’s orchestration is bigger. I am fortuntate enough to have sung both their works. Having sung Donna Elvira, Verdi's style is obviously very different from Mozart's. Don Giovanni is part opera buffo and part opera seria; Donna Anna and Donna Elvira are serious characters with many changes in personalities, but for Leporello it is a straight buffa role, so the opera has many changes in mood and feel.

Aida on the other hand is a strictly serious opera: we know its going to be a tragedy, while the pace is very fast. Vocally it calls for more expressivity; the mood has to come from your heart, so a forte is not just simply a forte. You have to justify it with the right emotion. For an aria like Ritorna vincitor, which is sung at her entrance, we understand her deep dilemma. We can tell that we are watching a tragedy right from the start. Verdi tells you right from the start what the character is about.

It is not easy to grasp these mood changes in your body, you can’t get too carried away by emotions as it will affect the way your body works while singing. In Aida, you can see that she is dying, she can see heaven. As singers we must have imagination but also be aware of the reality. Your physical and mental focus must grasp intonation and tempo, be in-sync with the conductor and your singing partners; should you share the same emotion or be different? Only then can you present the tension of the drama and music out to the audience.

In Wagner, the orchestra is through-composed, so it helps a lot with regards to expression. Verdi uses a lot of chords meant to support the singers, and in doing so relies more on the singers to do the emoting. So its harder to grasp the mood and emotional flow of Verdi's music, and that may affect your singing.

The Mad Scene: How do you find life in Singapore?

Jessica: Singapore is basically a Chinese society, so its mostly the same; but development in Singapore is different every year, everything changes so quickly! The government is very efficient in making changes, making Singapore more than noticeable in economy and architecture, and so helping the country improve. There is also a lot more people, much more than before.

The Mad Scene: How about food? Enjoy our local cuisines?

Jessica: Food is ok, no big difference as they are basically Chinese in nature. Singaporeans are very friendly; I have to get used to teach international students, and convey my teaching to them in a way that they can understand.

The Mad Scene: What are the differences between the opera scenes in Singapore and Taiwan?

Jessica: What the SLO has done for opera in Singapore is not easy! Taiwan has more governmental support, while the SLO is more independent. They do not have an easy job and what they have achieved is admirable. Taiwan's operas are produced by orchestras and by companies with private funding. However Singapore’s enterprises are happy to support the SLO, so its very different, but very good for the arts scene here.

The Mad Scene: How about the state of music education, what are the most striking differences?

Jessica: Singapore's government is proficient in this as it is in construction; speaking only for NAFA, the standard here has improved a lot. However Taiwan's music education starts from very a very young age; public schools develop young talents from primary school till doctorates. Singapore has yet to be there. If Singapore wants to develop a next virtuoso to the level of being the next Lang Lang, training has to start from very young, not just at 10 but even younger. Also through this process we eliminate the lesser talents.

So for foundation building in music education, Taiwan has done a better job, but that is through many decades of music education. if we are serious about developing musical talents, they have to start from very young. This development will show in the person and continue from there all through university.

There may be many children learning music, but to be a professional, such as Singapore’s Lang Lang, there may not be many prodigies, but they may be in our presence. So if the government wants to develop them, policies have to be in place. Otherwise rich parents may send their children overseas, while children whose families cannot afford it will simply miss out. So it is important for the government to invest in the talent, the infrastructure. Some of these children may give up music midway; it may be the parents’ idea to study music and the child may not be that interested, but there are some who do have talent, who are not that well off, and they need the opportunity to be discovered and trained. It will make a difference when he grows up. Culture is a country's foundation, regardless of west or east, it is the foundation of thought in civlisation, so it is important to have the infrastructure to nurture its artistic talents.

The Mad Scene: Who are your favourite singers, opera or otherwise?

Jessica: My favourite singer is Birgit Nilsson. Her vocal tone is similar to mine, so I like her recordings! She sings what she is good at, knowing not to go outside of her category . She does what she is good at and does it very well. Her mastery of breath support can be heard from her tone. Maria Callas may be more famous, but she has done some roles she perhaps should not have sung, such as mezzo roles in her late career. Of course this is something that people have different opinions about.

I also like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau in German lieder, as well as Anna Netrebko; I love her singing a lot in addition to being very beautiful!

The Mad Scene: You have sung some very iconic roles including Turandot, Aida and Brunnhilde, what other roles are on your wish list?

Jessica: I will be singing Brunnhilde in Siegfried at Bangkok later this year; I won't say if I will sing Gotterdamerung, because that’s much heavier.

I would also like to sing Leonora in La forza destino, one of Verdi’s great characters. I also would like to try Lady Macbeth, which is a very dramatic role.

The Mad Scene: Would you like to take on other mezzo roles?

Jessica: Sure, I won’t turn them down if its suitable. Perhaps Santuzza would be a suitable role.

The Mad Scene: What are your favourite CDs or DVDs, that you would recommend to our readers?

Jessica: Flagstad’s music is very deep. Although the technology at the time of her recordings is not very good, the speed on CD transfers may not be right, but we can hear some very good stuff in these early recordings. Her interpretations of the Liebestod and Dido’s Lament are very fantastic.

The Mad Scene: Lastly, tell us why we should come attend the SLO’s Verdi Gala?

Jessica: SLO will be presenting many well known Verdi excerpts. I talked to Darrell Ang and thought he’s a very outstanding conductor. The programme encompasses many of verdi’s achievements in solos, choral and instrumental music. If you really like Verdi and opera, no matter how much you think you know about opera, this is a great opportunity for you to further understand and enjoy the music better.

I really encourage students to watch live performances, such as the SLO's production of La Traviata earlier this year, as it helps you to improve. To improve a country’s culture and one's own musical ability, attending performances is the most basic. Many teachers tell students to attend minimum of 3 concerts and write a report. Readers of The Mad Scene don't have to do that of course, so just come and enjoy the show!


The Singapore Lyric Opera's Verdi Gala is on 24 October 2013. More information can be found in an earlier post. 

Check out the Events Page for tickets!

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