“It’s not easy as Chinese to be accepted”

It’s a perfectly routine story of a musical childhood in many ways. But, as China’s first countertenor, Meili Li (33), explains to me the background of his musical debut, slightly more unusual details begin to emerge.

His parents are both musicians. Her father studied singing but did not make it his job and now works in a television channel. His mother is a radio host who loves doing music shows. There was always music at home, and when his love of singing became apparent, he was encouraged to join a choir in Guangzhou, his “hometown” in southern China (actually a city of 15 millions of inhabitants).

As he tells the story, the first quirk was when his voice started breaking. “It took me a long time to lose my high-pitched voice,” he tells me on a Zoom call from a sunny park in south Berlin, with birdsong in the background. “It was very difficult for me – I wanted to keep my grades high.”

So, after a while, he began to sing in falsetto without even knowing what it was. And he didn’t know what a countertenor was either. “It just wasn’t a thing in China at that time. I thought I was a monster. Obviously, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and Alfred Deller and his successors weren’t in the family music collection.

He even managed to seriously worry his parents, as he also liked to talk to them in a falsetto voice. Trying to maintain something of the sound of his childhood singing voice has even become a burden. “I almost wished someone else had the voice, not me.”

“Almost Cry”

He was in his late teens when his father took him to a friend’s house and he heard, on a CD by the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, Vivaldi being sung in a voice like his. “I was almost crying and trying to sing. Then I saw his photo. He was in his mid-thirties. And I realized you could do this for a long time. The voice will not go away. I decided then that I wanted to do what he was doing.

He didn’t study music right away. “Actually, I did cinema and philosophy for my first university degree in Beijing. Then I met a teacher from the Central Conservatory of Music, who was willing to teach me for free because he had never taught a countertenor before. So it was like an educational experience. I was his guinea pig.

Everything went well, he says, because after four years the Royal Academy of Music in London gave him a full scholarship and I went there to do a master’s degree in voice. “Then I took an opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It started my career, then I moved to Germany a year later, because of Brexit, and also because Germany has a bigger opera market. There was also another reason. “I wanted to come to Germany because my idol, Andreas Scholl, is German. And now I really work here.

I realized that when I’m on stage, I’m very dramatic. I like this stuff

Given the widespread statistics that 50 million people study the piano in China, has there ever been pressure to learn it? “No. I didn’t. There are a lot of people who study piano. A lot of students study piano not because they like music or their parents like music, it’s because that everyone studies the piano.

He credits his parents’ sensitivity that he didn’t have to. “They lived in Xinjiang, northwest China. At that time, they lived under the planned economy. They wanted to buy a piano and it was not possible unless they had a ticket. They got a ticket that allowed them to buy a piano and they spent all their savings on it. It was so expensive that you could have bought a small apartment for the same price.

Audition failure

But he failed his piano audition. “When I was a baby, my dad would hold me in front of the piano and he would play a very deep chord. I cried. My dad was like, ‘My son, he doesn’t like the piano. I’m not going to force him to play. They spent all that money buying the piano so I could play it when I grew up. But they never made me study. In a way, I think it was for the better. Most of my friends who studied the piano as children don’t play at all now. But I maintained my love of music because no one was forcing me to learn it.

Opera didn’t really feature in his childhood, he says. “I’m sure I was taken to certain performances. But it wasn’t much when I was a kid. I don’t remember being taken to a full opera. It was when I was in Beijing, studying cinema and studying singing at the same time, that I started going to the opera. I remember seeing Handel’s Semele in Beijing, performed by a British opera company, and some of the people who sang there later became my classmates at the academy and later my colleagues.

It was when he was in London that he had his first real immersion in opera. “I realized that when I’m on stage, I’m very dramatic. I like that kind of stuff. I love her more than just singing in an oratorio or in church – which can also be dramatic, but in a different way. I trained as an actor when I was a kid and I really enjoyed it. It is related to opera. And besides, I really like to speak foreign languages. I never deliberately thought about opera. But when it comes to that, I’m pretty good with it. . . drama, acting, singing, the feeling of music, foreign languages. It’s the perfect combination of what I love.

I just have to work very hard to prove to them that I can really sing Italian better than some other European singers

Even for people growing up in the world of music and opera, understanding the inner workings of a performing career can be very difficult. And for someone who is Chinese and a countertenor, “Finding a foothold in this world is particularly difficult. Especially as a countertenor. In Germany, you can be hired by a theater and obtain a permanent position within the company, even as a soloist, which hardly exists in any other country. But, as a countertenor, you always work freelance.

“A week ago I finally got an EU residence permit, which really gives me stability. Before that, I felt like I was floating in the air and nothing was stable for me. It was a very difficult time. But I received a lot of help and I had good opportunities, like jumping at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, just before Covid, in Handel’s Giustino.

“conservative ideas”

He got the call 10 days before opening night when they needed a new singer for the title role. “They called me – I was in Iceland! And I learned the role in 10 days – it really opened doors for me. It’s not easy as a Chinese to be accepted. Opera is on the one hand very open, very creative. But on the other hand, there are conservative ideas and values ​​behind it. It’s always a fight between the two. It illustrates one of the misconceptions he encounters. “I just have to work really hard to prove to them that I can actually sing Italian better than some other European singers.”

He will make his debut as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Lismore. “I obviously sang the famous aria Che farò senza Euridice? It is one of the most famous tunes for countertenor. I know all about Gluck’s importance as an opera reformer. I did two different Orfeos – Monteverdi’s, in which I took over the role of the hopeful, Speranza, at the Royal Opera House, and I sang one of the spirits of hell. And I did a contemporary Orfeo at the Beijing Music Festival, a new writing, presented in an immersive operatic style.

So, as he puts it, he’s already familiar with “the wailing and sighing and singing about wishing to bring back his love.” He laughs as he points out that Orfeo in Gluck’s opera “has a lot to sing about”. He relishes the challenge of “entering a state of transmitting an emotion, in the purest and most innocent way, instead of trying to show the voice or whatever. It’s always beautiful and dramatic in its simplicity. It’s so wholesome. And I love I can’t wait to see the dancers, because a lot of it is ballet music. It’s, he says, “the role most important so far for me”.

The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is underway June 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th. The festival takes place from May 31st to June 6. www.blackwatervalleyoperafestival.com

About Victoria Rothstein

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