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
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
“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
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
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.