Arts / Music festival casts a cultural eye to the north

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CHINESE-born soprano Shu-Cheen Yu is one of many artists coming to town for the Canberra International Music Festival as director Roland Peelman turns a musical eye toward the great Chinese cultures to the north of us.

Soprano Shu-Cheen Yu… “Only the Western opera would give me the scientific understanding of singing without a microphone.”
Yu will perform solo, but the festival will also feature the Chinese Oriental Orchestra, narration by William Yang, as musicians perform before the National Museum’s 50-metre Chinese-style scroll “Harvest of Endurance”, a new suite by Hing-yan Chan based on a Hong Kong wedding banquet and performances by the Ding Yi ensemble from Singapore, including one at Canberra Airport in celebration of direct flights from Singapore to Canberra.

Shu-Cheen Yu sings opera, oratorio, lieder and folk songs. She’s won 12 Opera Australia awards and in recent years has starred in “The King and I”, first as Tuptim and later as Lady Thiang, for which role the company raised the register by a half-key to fit her voice.

“I grew up in the theatre,” the animated Yu tells “CityNews” by phone from Melbourne.

“My parents were involved in the local Shanxi Opera, and if they wanted a dog or a cat, they’d always ask me, so I became quite familiar with the theatre lighting, stage right and stage left, I have no fear on stage.”

She went on to train formally in the demanding Beijing Opera, which requires “so much patience – we must be dancers first, actors second and singers third… it takes a minimum of five to six years before you can do a reasonable job.”

In Beijing Opera, the female voice is placed very high, but before the Cultural Revolution she had discovered from listening to her parents’ Victoria de Los Angeles records that high voices are also valued in Western opera.

“I’ve done both,” she says, noting that there are extraordinary similarities between Beijing Opera and Baroque operas such as Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea”.

Yu’s path to the West was a roundabout one. There were relatively few Chinese operas, but she had discovered that if she sang folk music she had thousands of songs at her disposal, so became one of the top three folk singers in China, performing with the National Oriental Song and Dance Company over six years making five recordings.

“But I wasn’t satisfied,” she says, and with lots of Western contact in the ’80s – she sang with George Michael and saw Pavarotti perform in “La Boheme”– she decided that singing folk music wasn’t enough.

“I wanted to develop my career, to sing better and learn Western opera, only the Western opera would give me the scientific understanding of singing without a microphone.”

Moving to Australia in 1987, she took a degree in voice at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and met music director Roland Peelman when she joined Sydney’s Song Company. She later moved to Melbourne to become, like her countryman, “Mao’s Last Dancer” Li Cunxin, an extraordinary mix of senior artist, businesswoman and cultural diplomat.

Yu is a property investment adviser and co-director with her Australian husband of her own company. She is her own agent and manages her own business as a singing teacher. “Out of the Ten Tenors, four were my students,” she boasts.

She has performed many times with Opera Australia, in classical concerts, and at private functions many times in Canberra, but never in public.

She also makes frequent visits to China and, when on scholarship at Covent Garden, in New York and Vienna, she contacted the Australian diplomatic missions to ask if they needed her to sing.

“When I come to Canberra I would like to see if I could perform at a Chinese embassy function,” Yu says. “Really, I’m serving both countries, bridging the two nations using music.”

Canberra International Music Festival, April 27-May 7, all bookings to

The Asian face of the festival

May 1

  • Chinese Oriental Orchestra performs “Red Dragon,” 11am, Chinese Gardens, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China.

May 2

  • “Taking Flight”, Ding Yi Music Company and Chinese Oriental Orchestra, 11am, Canberra Airport Atrium.
  • “The Lion’s Roar – Sounds of Singapore”, Ding Yi Music Company, 4pm, Ainslie Arts Centre.

May 3

  • Shu-Cheen Yu performs Schubert, Shostakovich and Mozart, 6.30pm, Fitters’ Workshop.

May 4

  • “Harvest of Endurance”, Chinese Oriental Orchestra, narration by William Yang, 6.30pm, National Museum of Australia.

May 5

  • “The Education Revolution – Education in the Asian Century,” 11am-3.15pm, school music and forums at Canberra Grammar.

May 7

  • “Farewell to Arms” suite by Hing-yan Chan based on a Hong Kong wedding banquet and Julian Yu’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, 6.30pm-8:50pm, Fitters’ Workshop.


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