When the Indianapolis Opera and The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra join forces this weekend, the music will be more familiar to patrons than the principal performers. Opera's Rising Stars will feature four artists who are just beginning to make their mark in the opera world, achieving acclaim through artist competitions around the country. Yet, out of the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone schedule to perform, it is the tenor who provides the most intriguing insight for the future of opera in America and around the world.
Yi Li is a native of Jinan, the capital of the Shandong province in eastern China. The city is considered a major economic, administrative and transportation hub for Northern China thanks to a railway system that was developed through German influences at the turn of the 20th Century. The study of western classical music is fairly common in China and is encouraged among the children of the country's more affluent citizens. Classical piano and string instruments are the most common instruments of study — the country is known producing world famous pianists, violinists and cellists. However at the age of 8, Yi Li went a different direction from the norm and began his western classical music training on the clarinet. And while his musical training found its foundation in wind instruments, Li says the inspiration to use his voice came from more personal influences.
"I was surrounded by my father's voice and his singing everyday, so he influenced me to start singing, and eventually turn it into a career," says Li.
At age 19, Li began his vocal training at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and eventually earned bachelors and master of music degrees. But once he decided opera would be his chosen career, that path led him out of his native country and to the University of Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music ( CCM) to fine tune his craft. Although western music — more specifically western classical opera — is studied and celebrated in China, the opportunity for professional work and performance is very limited. All but one of the country's great opera performance halls was built only within the last 15 years.
Since receiving his artist diploma from CCM, Li has become a rising star on the emerging artist competition circuit. His growing list of honors includes the 2014 Grand Final Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions; a finalist at Operalia: The World Opera Competition; Winner of the Sullivan Musical Foundation Award; China's representative at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition; 3rd Prize at the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition; Finalist in the 49th International Singing Competition of Toulouse; and Winner of the Grand Prize in Opera Columbus Irma M. Cooper Vocal Competition.
To be a world-renowned opera singer in this day and age is no easy feat. To be a world-renowned lyric tenor is even harder. The bar is set incredibly high thanks to the talents of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and others. Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras not only entertained the world with the quality of their talents, they also popularized the genre. They are the gold standard for operatic tenors of our time — it makes sense that they would be the inspirations for Li as well.
One can hear that inspiration in Li's work. One example is a peformance of "Pourquoi me Reveiller" from Werther by French composer Jules Massenet found on YouTube. Li's tonality and expression is very similar to Domingo and illustrates the potential career in front of him. One review of Li's performance notes "his smooth lift to the top of his voice." It's a quality that makes the performance appear effortless and sound unstrained to the listener. Domingo had it and Li is perfecting his craft in similar fashion. While the same critic hears "rough French diction" in the piece, such a minor flaw can and should be forgiven based on the performer's musicality. Mastering the diction of western languages has to be difficult for the native Mandarin speaker. In his words, "I find English to be the most challenging."
So with a growing career in an intense medium, what is Li's eventual goal?
"In 10 years I want to be regarded as the best Asian tenor of our time," says Li. "I hope to have the opportunity to debut in world famous opera theaters, such as La Scala [the world famous opera house in Milan, Italy] and Covent Garden [the Royal Opera House in London]."
Yi Li is just at the beginning of his career. There currently is no bar set for the best Asian tenor of our time. If his current success and momentum is any indication of the future, Li could very well achieve his goal and so much more.
Opera's Rising Stars Repertoire list
Weber Overture to Oberon
Rossini Cruda sorte! From L'Italiana in Algeri, performed by Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano
Mozart Hai gia vinta la causa from Marriage of Figaro, performed by Reginald Smith Jr., baritone
Nicolai O susser mond from The Merry Wives of Windsor, performed by Indianapolis Opera Chorus
Gounod Je veux vivre from Romeo and Juliette, performed by Sydney Mancasola, soprano
Puccini Che gelida manina from La Bohème, performed by Yi Li, tenor
Gounod O nuit divine (Balcony Scene) from Romeo and Juliette, performed by Sydney Mancasola, soprano and Yi Li, tenor
Verdi Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore, performed by Indianapolis Opera Chorus
Verdi Caro nome from Rigoletto, performed by Sydney Mancasola, soprano
Massenet Pourquoi me reveille from Werther, performed by Yi Li, tenor
Tchaikovsky Waltz from Eugene Onegin, performed by Indianapolis Opera Chorus
Mozart Il core vi dono from Cosi fan Tutte, performed by Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano and Reginald Smith Jr., baritone
Verdi Stride la vampa from Il Trovatore, performed by Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano
Bizet Toreador Song from Carmen, performed by Indianapolis Opera Chorus, Reginald Smith Jr., baritone