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ZhengZhong Zhou [Photo courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
12 Jul 2011

“Opera is like a tree” — ZhengZhong Zhou

In Gounod’s Faust at the Royal Opera House in October 2011, Zhengzhong Zhou is alternating with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the part of Valentin. Alternating, not covering or substituting. Since Zhou is very young, it’s quite a challenge.

“Opera is like a tree” — ZhengZhong Zhou

By Anne Ozorio

Above: ZhengZhong Zhou [Photo courtesy of The Royal Opera House]


Such is the status of the Young Artists Programme that it attracts hundreds of applicants for the dozen or so places offered each year. Talent alone is not enough. Only those with proven professional experience and potential are chosen in the first place. Vocal ability is a given. Over the two year Programme, their skills are refined. They work on vocal improvement, language, stage skills, and personal skills. ZhengZhong Zhou joined the Young Artists Programme in September 2010.

Before he came to London, he spent two years in the company at Marseille Opera, developing an affinity for French repertoire. Before he left France, he sang a recital of Poulenc songs, he recounts. “I love Poulenc”, he says “and Debussy!”

Born in Hubei, China, he trained at the Shanghai Conservatory, established 100 years ago. Shanghai was the biggest city in the world, sophisticated and international. Russian and central European refugees flocked to China, many of them talented musicians and singers. The Shanghai Conservatory was a centre for excellence, even in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

Singing came instinctively to Zhou. In 1983, the year before he was born, Luciano Pavarotti gave a concert in Beijing. The recording became so popular in China that it was frequently played on the radio and on cassettes. Everyone listened. Zhou absorbed Pavarotti even before he’d learned to speak. As an infant he was singing along, for the sheer joy of singing, too young to recognize language or style. “I sang ‘O sole mio’”, he say. “People used to say, why is that boy singing in Italian? But I was too young to know the difference. I just sang because I loved it and wanted to sing it all the time. I liked Pavarotti because his voice was so wide and bright, but I copied every different voice type, because it was so much fun”.

“Maybe it helps because Chinese is a musical language”, he says “everything comes from tones, and you change meaning by changing pitch”, he says. “When I meet musicians, I tell them they can remember how to pronounce my name by the tune”. He then sings his name showing how the inflections work. “In Mandarin there are four tones, and in the south there are nine different tones”.

“Music is international, because it’s about feelings, and everyone has feelings”, says Zhou. “in every part of the world. So when you are singing you are not just singing words, you’re singing feelings”. Zhou sings a passage from Don Carlo in a straightforward manner. Then his face lights up and he sings the same passage, this time full of expression.“You add little breaths and make little changes”, he says, “so you can make it sound true”. Then he sings it again explaining phrase by phrase, with great enjoyment..

Zhou brings his notebooks out of his briefcase. “I write out the music by hand. Then I write the words, then I write notes for myself, to show how to shape the singing and meaning”. He makes numerous interpretive markings and uses different coloured inks, so the notes are surprisingly easy to follow. The idea is that, with this thorough groundwork, he can absorb the music intuitively. In performance, he’s then free to sing spontaneously, having built the foundations beforehand.

“I’m so happy to be in Europe because that is the motherland of western opera”, he says. We discuss the wider cultural milieu that is the background to understanding European opera. “I like to learn”, he says, with enthusiasm. Zhou is an avid reader. Recently he sang Brühlmann in Massenet’sWerther. It’s a small part but Zhou is observant. “Massenet is interested in all the family, Albert, Sophie, the children. Family and duty. It’s different to Goethe’s Werther”.

Since Werther, Zheng has created Prince Yamadori in Puccini Madama Butterfly, which has been filmed for cinema release. Yamadori is an interesting character because he has the highest status of anyone in the opera. He rides in a carriage, the others walk. Yet he will give up his other wives to marry Cio Cio San if she’ll have him. It’s a substantial part for a singer still in his mid-twenties, but Zheng made it sympathetic.

On 17th July, the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme holds it year-end gala. The show is put together by the young artists themselves. This year’s theme is “Venice - its history, mystery and glamour. The first part of the programme is built around lesser-known Rossini, and the second part around Donizetti, Offenbach and Britten. Zhou is singing. He speaks animatedly of the pleasures of bel canto.

“We learn to connect to people”, he says of the Jette Parker Scheme. “The singing, of course, but everything else that goes into making opera, like stagecraft and acting.” For his graduate dissertation, Zhou wrote about acting in opera, studying Stanislavski, the Alexander technique and Rolando Villazón as case study. “Opera is like a tree. The roots grow from the music, they are the basic part, but the branches are acting, using language, movement. When the whole tree grows strong, then you can reach people better”.

Zhou mentions a movie about a prison, where the prisoners are brutally treated. Then one of them hears Mozart on the radio. “When he hears Mozart”, says Zhou, “The prisoner thinks, I am human, I am a man, even in that prison. He doesn’t know about classical music, but the music has that effect on him”.

“It is like light. Electric light is easy, you just turn a switch. But opera is like a candle. You light the flame, and it keeps changing colours, shadows, moods. If you want to connect with people, you want the right atmosphere to communicate. Rich or poor, everyone has feelings. So you want to reach those feelings”. What does Zhou do when he’s not working? “I get frustrated”, he says, “I need to sing”.

For more information, please see the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

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