Hui He (in origin: 和慧; born in Ankang) is an Chinese operatic lirico-spinto soprano. She was trained vocally at the Conservatory in Xi’an under Professor Rao Yujian.
She graduated her degree in 1994. and made her debut next year in Shanghai as the mezzo-soprano Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. She soon switched to singing soprano and sang the title role in Verdi’s Aida at the inaugural event of the Shanghai Grand Theater in 1998, as a first Chinese ever performed as Aida.
Hui He’s breakthrough on the International stage came in 2000. when she was one of the winners of Operalia singing competition (founded by famous tenor Placido Domingo), held that year in Los Angeles. In the beginning of next year, He and Domingo gave a concert in Shanghai, and, later that year, she sang the role of Aida with the Los Angeles Opera and Liù in Puccini’s Turandot with the Washington D. C. Opera.
Her first operatic acclaim in Europe came when she debuted the roles of Cho-Cho-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Tosca.
By then, her talent was widely recognized and He Hui began appearing at opera houses at first mainly in Italy and France and then throughout Europe. She made astonishing performances in some of the World’s most famous Opera houses, such as Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, The Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London, Met Opera in New York, and noumerous festivals.
She lives in Verona, Italy.
Just few days ago you finished 10-in-a-row performances of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in the comeback in the same role after two seasons in the Met Opera. How excited you must be about this?
I’m really happy because the audience seemed to appreciate very much our performances and welcoming us everynight with moving standing ovations. Being Butterfly on that legendary stage where all the historical interpreters of the role sung it (Licia Albanese, Dorothy Kirsten, Victoria de los Angeles, Antonietta Stella, Renata Scotto among the others) is every time an indescribable emotion. I was also really happy to share this wonderful success with my wonderful colleagues and Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi, and all the magnificent artists from the orchestra and the chorus and also to the technicians that bring life every night to this amazing production by Anthony Minghella.
You sang Cho-Cho-San at Met earlier in two more seasons in the same production. Is there any differences from that time and now, when you already familiar yourself with the stage and the audience?
I debuted Cio-Cio-San at Met in 2014. and I sang the role also in 2017. I’m really affected to this wonderful theatre and this amazing audience. I think that here you can breathe a different enthusiasm, a passionate love for art and for opera. I received in these period a lot of beautiful messages from New York opera lovers and from all around the world and I was really moved: my mission is to transmit to the audience all the emotions of the character and when It happens I’m the happiest person in the world.
On the 9th November, the 6th show, was live broadcast in MetHD worldwide, and that was your first appearance in MetHD. Did you felt any different knowing that there are millions people watching in their local cinemas?
On November 9th it was a special performance, my first Met Live HD. I tried to do my best and when the performance has finished I read all the comments on my social pages and private messages so full of love… I want to thank all the people also here for their appreciation and support.
You mentioned recently that you like this production of Butterfly, because it have some new approaches and innovation that describe her tragic destiny. Can you point some of those?
I love this production of Butterfly by Anthony Minghella, I think it’s one of the most beautiful “Butterflies” that I’ve done, maybe together to Damiano Michieletto production in Turin and Franco Zeffirelli production in Verona. It’s a traditional production because we wear beautiful Japanese costumes, but with a huge theatrical power. There are some moments that have an emotional deepness I can’t describe: the duet from act I with the lights of Chinese lanterns or the beginning of the act II when Butterfly offers a red rose to Pinkerton and with a suggestive effect he disappears… So, so moving.
One of those innovations is also the “The Boy”, by the words of Director, a wooden puppet who “plays” Butterfly’s son. Both critics and audience agree that you expressed enormous love and care to Him, like He is your own son. How difficult for you was to express all this feelings to a puppet?
The puppet who plays “Dolore”, Butterfly son, belongs to the elements from Kabuki (the traditional Japanese theatre) or more specifically from Jōruri and Bunraku that Minghella put in this production. Maybe at the beginning was difficult to express all my feelings to a puppet, but I found the way to be involved in this relation with him that at the end it seemed to be real and true. I think that Minghella had a genial idea to want this wooden puppet, because It exalts the solitude of Cio-Cio-San. Butterfly is like a monologue of the protagonist with herself, all the opera is about her controversial emotions, her faith and pain… She is a real show-stealer.
Met Opera: Madama Butterfly © 2019 Richard Termine
There were standing ovations for you all this 10 nights, you definitively conquer auditorium in New York. Are you coming back again as Butterfly to Met stage?
I hope to coming back soon, but not only with Butterfly: I would love to play also other roles of my repertoire, or my recent new roles, Adriana (Lecouvreur), Turandot or Mimì…
Already now, you changed continent, you are back to your homeland China, in Shanghai, where you will sing “Turandot”. Do you cherish special emotions when you perform in your country?
I’m happy every time that I can return in my homeland and I’m also happy to reprise in Shanghai the role of Turandot, a role that I debuted at Teatro Comunale di Bologna last summer. I love being here in Shanghai, because at the Grand Theatre I made my operatic debut in 1998. as Aida. Performances will be on December 13th/15th and I’m looking forward to sing for Chinese audience. Here I can stay with my beloved parents, I can meet friends that I didn’t see for a lot of time. I’m also excited that after Turandot I will tour around China with six concerts in Wuhan, Chengdu, Xi’an, Shenzhen, Beijing and Tianjin.
Do you also feel more proud to sing this role of cruel Chinese princess in China? Once you said that for many years you refuse role of Turandot as you didn’t want to risk that all theaters call you for this role only.
Yes, I refused this role about 25 times also to some World important Opera houses, because being Chinese the risk to be identified with this character was really high. But now I feel that I’m mature technically and personally to sing Turandot. I play the Princess with my voice and its colors, so I try to portray a character that is strong, but at the same time, really fragile. I’m interested in giving all the shades that Puccini wrote in his score. As I often tell in the interviews, my voice has the gift to adapt itself to different kinds of style… I just follow the music and my intuition. It’s very important to know that to approach Turandot you have to obtain a complete control of your voice from a technical point of view. For that I have to thank my wonderful pianists, Alessandro Vitellio and Cristina Orsolato, that always work with me to be every time better and better.
You were already studied music on Conservatory when you felt in love with Opera after listening Puccini’s “La Boheme”for the first time.
I always loved to sing. I remember that when I was a kid I went to sing in the nature around my home… During a ceremony in my school I sang a little Chinese song and my math teacher noticed my voice and bring me to his neighbor who was a voice teacher. He prepared me to enter in the Conservatory in Xi’an (my city) so I start to study music. Then, at some moment I listened a recording of Puccini’s “La Bohème” (I think with Mirella Freni) and I completely felt in love with Opera and I decided that I want to be an Opera singer. My destiny was Italian Opera and Italy, where I live now. I feel half-Italian and half-Chinese.
However, even you first had touch with “La Boheme”, your debut as Mimì was this July, at Puccini’s Festival in Torre del Lago. Is it unsual that first you sang more dramatic roles, like Tosca, Cho-Cho-San and Turandot?
My role-debut as Mimì was really unexpected, but when they offered it I said immediately “yes” because it was one of my dream-role and I was sad that theaters didn’t offer this to me earlier.
Mimì is such a special creature, she is so delicate, she lives every moment with poetry, but at the same time she is strong, she fights against her illness with all her courage.
I debuted this role only a month after my debut as Turandot in Bologna, but if you have the right technique and a mature artistic sensibility, you can do it. I’m happy to have debuted this role now, because I can give her all my experience also with the other Puccini’s heroines.
It was also so special to debut this role at Puccini’s Festival in Torre del Lago, beside his house… I could feel his presence, his look over us while we were singing his eternal music.
You have very wide soprano specter, among most of Puccini’s heroines you are dazzling audience as Aida and Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, you also sang a bit of Wagner and Mozart. Is there a role that you would like to do in the nearest future, is there an opera hero that you would like to “become”?
There are a lot of roles that I would love to sing: Elisabetta in “Don Carlo” (the big aria is part of my program in China’s concert tour), Norma, Sister Angelica and many others. From Wagner I sang only Isolde Liebstod in concerts, but I would love to sing some German role such as Elsa in “Lohengrin”… I sang Ariadne Strauss’s “Ariadne from Naxos” by in Athens years ago with a big success. I would like to reprise that one or to add some other Strauss roles.
You have amazing history with performances in Arena of Verona, you celebrated 15th year in a row appearance on this Stage. Do you feel proud about that?
I celebrated last year this important anniversary. I made a record as the first female singer to have sung in this huge stage for 15 years non stop and in the biggest part of Italian repertoire. I made my debut in Arena in 2005. with Liù in Turandot and from that year I sang every summer there, especially Aida, that I sang from 2006. to 2019. without interruptions. I celebrated this special anniversary with three special performances, two as Tosca and one as Aida, with amazing colleagues: Fabio Sartori, Ambrogio Maestri, Vittorio Grigolo, Judit Kutasi and Carlo Ventre, who’ll be my Calaf in Shanghai. I want also to mention the special performance of Tosca on August 29th, when we celebrated also the 500th performances at the Arena of amazing Maestro Daniel Oren.
Arena of Verona: Tosca
Photo: Ennevi Fondazione
You are living in Verona, so do you feel Arena of Verona as your “mothership stage”?
Verona is my second home, I have a lot of friends there that are like a family for me. I love this city, its people, the beauty of the architecture, the lifestyle. Arena of Verona is a special stage for me because they invited me every year and there’s a bond has been created between me and the audience of this magic place. Every time I stand on that stage I’m extremely happy and full of emotions, singing in this Roman amphitheater, in this operatic legendary stage is always a challenge and a satisfaction. I sang also on the stage of Teatro Filarmonico, where I recently debuted as Adriana Lecouvreur, a role that brings me also at the Salzburg Festival last summer for a last-minute jump in.
You were raised in China, now you are in Italy, but also you’re travelling all over the world. How do you balance those two different Cultures, Asian and European, Eastern and Western?
As I said before, I’m half-Chinese and half-Italian… China and Italy are both parts of my heart and my soul.
You are also marked as a passionate stylist, you like to wear nice costumes and dresses on stage, even you designed some of your dresses. But, what kind of clothes you wear in private life?
I like elegant dresses, but not eccentric… I think that I have to be a Diva or a Primadonna only on stage… In normal life I have my style that is sober, but refined.
Is there any other type of music beside Opera and Classics that you like to listen?
No, well, I don’t have so much free time, so I have to be concentrate on the music that I’m singing in that period.
You said that you are good cook and that you are preparing food for your friends. So, do you make pizza or spring roles? 😀
I love to share my free time with friends and cook for them… I’m good to cook some Chinese traditional recipes, like ravioli.
How do you spend your free time, when you are not on the stage?
I like to have a walk, to go to movie theaters, spend time with friends. My second passion is painting and at the end of my career maybe I’ll organize a solo exhibition… Who knows?!
If you could choose to change life only one of the opera divas, who will that be? Which heroine and what would be finale/end of that Opera?
If I could choose, I wouldn’t want that these women kill themselves… As I say sometimes in interviews, I died so many times on stage that every performance is like a dress-rehearsal of my real death! (laugh).