Shenyang, a 30-year-old opera singer from Tianjin, China, is ready to perform the lead role in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” premiering Saturday at McCaw Hall.
He’s happy to be back in Seattle.
“It’s the closest city in America to China, and I return home to Tianjin often,” he says.
At the same time, his colleagues and friends at Seattle Opera are like a family to him, Shenyang says. In the days leading up to the opening night of “Figaro,” the cast and crew are hard at work rehearsing and making final preparations.
As Shenyang anticipates the premiere, the globally acclaimed opera singer remembers a time when music was fluid to him.
“When I was a kid, I thought that classical music was the same as pop,” remembers the opera singer. “I listened to Michael Jackson and [classical conductor] Herbert Von Karajan at the same time.”
Both of his parents were singers, and they bought a piano before Shenyang was born. In 1980, pianos were in short supply with only 10,000 having been manufactured in China that year.
“As you can imagine,” he says, “in 1983, it wasn’t easy to have a piano in China.”
But his parents didn’t ask him to learn how to play it. Shenyang began singing at age 16 and listened to recordings of German lieder (classical songs), Wagner and Mozart. At 19, he entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and decided to pursue a career in opera.
“It’s the genre that best fits my style,” says the bass-baritone singer.
At the Shanghai school, the American soprano singer Renee Fleming heard Shenyang in her master class in 2007, and encouraged him to apply to The Juilliard School in New York. That year, he joined the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, where he met director Stephen Wadsworth, who introduced him to Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera’s former general director.
Shenyang won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2007 and changed his name from “Shen Yang” to “Shenyang.” In 2008, he won the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, and the Montblanc New Voices Award at Saint Petersburg’s White Nights Festival in 2010.
He loves to travel.
“I’m always on a plane going somewhere,” he says.
Shenyang frequently returns home to family and friends in Tianjin, and to perform operas and song recitals throughout China.
In May 2011, Shenyang gave a recital of Chinese art songs at the Shanghai Grand Theatre.
But it was in 2009 that Shenyang made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Masetto in “Don Giovanni” and later sang the role of Colline in “La Boheme.” Performing at the Met Opera would eventually make a memorable impression, opening the door for him to perform in Seattle.
“The first time I heard Shenyang was in [Handel’s opera] ‘Rodelinda’ at the Metropolitan Opera with a star-studded cast, and I was very impressed by his voice,” remembers Aren Der Hacopian, Seattle Opera’s director of artistic administration. “I believe a year or two later, we heard him in audition, and still, it was clear that he had one fantastic instrument, and he sounded beautiful. We were impressed by his vocal talent and thought that this might be a good fit for him to make his Seattle Opera debut.”
Though Der Hacopian describes the process of casting as “a huge puzzle to figure out,” Shenyang was at the top of his list for the role of Figaro.
“Sometimes we are fortunate and all the stars line up, and a great cast is born through the rehearsal process; and sometimes the greatest of talents don’t meld well together,” he explains. “Having said all of that, I believe Shenyang was indeed one of the first puzzle pieces that were set.”
Der Hacopian says he is very much looking forward to watching Shenyang sing in Saturday’s “Figaro” premiere.
When Shenyang isn’t onstage impressing the socks off of opera society, he enjoys photography.
“I shoot scenes from daily life all over the world,” he says.
Street photography is a serious hobby for Shenyang: he owns 60 Leica cameras. He says the nice thing about his photography is that “I don’t have to depend on it for my living, so I don’t have to sell my work. I just photograph what I want to.”
“Basically, there are two kinds of music,” says Shenyang. “First, there’s all the music that people are familiar with – the Beethoven and Mozart and others. It’s wonderful, but there’s an expectation of a certain performing style. It’s hard to do something new with music that’s been recorded countless times. But then there’s the second type: new or ‘contemporary’ music, which has never been performed [yet]. This presents the challenge of figuring out what the composer is trying to do, what he or she wants.”
Singer and photographer Shenyang made his orchestral conducting debut in 2014 with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, in an all-Czech symphonic program. At the same time, he had his first photo exhibition at a concert hall.
“It was like double cross over,” he says.
With his internationally acclaimed singing ability, eclectic appreciation for song, wide range of interests, globe-trotting tours and refreshing sense of humor, Shenyang is truly a bright star on the world stage.
Watch Shenyang make his thrilling debut as Figaro in the Seattle Opera’s rendition of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at McCaw Hall on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. “Figaro” will be in production through Jan. 30. Tickets and details at www.seattleopera.org.