Skip to content
search
Arts Culture A Rare Interview With Li Yugang, China's Best-Known Contemporary Opera Singer

A Rare Interview With Li Yugang, China's Best-Known Contemporary Opera Singer

A Rare Interview With Li Yugang, China's Best-Known Contemporary Opera Singer
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
By Lekha Shankar
September 30, 2019
Li Yugang will take to the Thailand Cultural Centre stage on October 5 and 6 to play Lady Zhaojun

He has been called China's National Treasure. Contemporary opera singer Li Yugang has won numerous awards, released 14 music albums and performed around the world. He also paints, writes and directs and has millions of global fans, many of whom are flying to Bangkok at the end of the week to see his performance of Lady Zhaojun

Lady Zhaojun is based on the life of an ancient Chinese beauty from the Han dynasty, who left her homeland to marry an outsider from the Huns' empire for peace. As Li is famous for his enactment of female roles in his musical dramas—the old Chinese opera tradition of nan dan—the artist takes on the role of the title character. The production is Li's most ambitious show to date. To get it right, he visited the Mongolian grasslands where to story took place and also gathered a top international team of more than 70 singers and dancers for the lavish production. Li himself also sings about 30 songs in the show. 

A man of extraordinary talents and creativity, Li had humble beginnings. Born into a farming family in the small, remote village of Jilin in Northeastern China, after school, Li could not afford to go to college and so instead moved to a neighbouring city, finding work as a waiter and bar singer. One night, he substituted for a female singer who did not turn up—a poetic foreshadowing of a destiny to come.

In 2006, Li appeared in a popular televised talent show called Star Avenue and though he did not win, became a name no one would forget. He started giving solo performances and in 2009, Li became a first-class artist, joining the prestigious National Performing and Dancing Company. In the same year, he was also invited to perform at the Sydney Opera House, becoming the second Chinese artist to do so. Since then, Li has travelled widely around the global with a perennial aim of spreading Chinese culture far and wide through art. Through our exclusive interview with the Chinese operatic artist, he tells us that all dreams can be realised if one never gives up. 

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

How special is it to bring Lady Zhaojun to Bangkok?

First of all, the story of Lady Zhaojun originates from ancient China. Wang Zhaojun, who left her homeland to travel to another land to resolve war, represents the spirit of harmony in Chinese history and is a symbol of national unity. We have created an audio-visual feast of music, dance, costumes and aesthetics to bring out the grand nature of the story, and I hope that Thai people will enjoy this feast.

The character of Wang Zhaojun also has special meaning to me because her wandering and subsequent growth are so similar to mine. We both left home when we were young. The Silk Road she walked has become a symbol of the inheritance and spread of Chinese civilisation. That’s why it took me so long to study, research and interpret the story. This is not just a story about a lady called Wang Zhaojun. It is the story of Chinese culture and civilisation.

Is that why you travelled along the Silk Road route that Wang Zhaojun took?

Yes, I led my team in the retracing of Wang Zhaojun’s route a thousand years ago so that we could feel the customs and culture along the way. 

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

Would you say that Lady Zhaojun is your biggest and most important production? 

Well, every drama and concert I do, since my debut, has been very important to me, as every artist wants to give his best to his audience. However, I must admit that Lady Zhaojun is one of my biggest and most meaningful productions. That’s why I selected a team of top artists who have won awards in China and abroad. It’s a special production in many ways. It’s deep and profound in its subject and unique in its style as it balances tradition with innovation. 

Is it important for you that your musical and dramatic styles stay in tune with the times? 

This is very important. Things are constantly changing and renewing. Chinese traditional culture also needs to keep pace with the changes, in order to attract young people of the new era. That’s the only way that traditional culture will get revitalised. Therefore, while respecting and spreading traditional culture, I must also introduce some innovation. I plan to take Lady Zhaojun to many countries and introduce many new audiences to it.

You have performed in many countries, including the US, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Australia. What were the reactions of foreign audiences to your music?

They were unforgettable to me! All of my performances have been warmly welcomed by the communities, the audiences and the local governments.

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

How common are nan dan singers in modern times? Why do you do it, as there are many female singers today?

Nan dan is a form of performance originating from traditional Chinese opera. It still exists in China but is no longer as common as it was in the past. The number of artists who are doing such performances is rapidly decreasing. I am not committed to the nan dan in the traditional sense. I combine this form of performance with modern drama techniques and present it on the stage with a new look. Of course, women are now free to perform in public, unlike in the past, but female characters created from the male perspective come with different concepts and expressions than when they are created by women. When I perform, I believe I bring a unique viewing experience to the audience. 

What is the most enjoyable and the most difficult aspect of being a nan dan singer?

What is most enjoyable for me is the love and support from the audience. Their applause is tremendous for me! The most difficult part is creating the female image. Whether it is the singing or the physical demeanour, it is necessary to study thoroughly in order to achieve realistic and rigorous details. In addition, we face the problem of identity. People always ask me questions about this, outside of the stage, and my family and friends are also questioned about this. What I’d like to say is that my interpretation of female characters is limited to the stage. They have nothing to do with my real life.

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

How do you train your voice to sing in this amazingly sweet manner?

For the interpretation of the female voice, on one hand, it comes from a certain talent in the vocal cords. On the other hand, it is a tough and painstaking process because it is not just about making a sound like a woman but making that sound seem natural and real. That involves a lot of hard work.

Are you disciplined about what you eat and drink?

To maintain one’s body and voice, it is necessary to control the type and intake of food. However, I am also an ordinary person and often give in to temptations! But whenever I have a show, I am very strict with myself, so that I can give my best performance.

Who can you give credit to, for your superb success?

I would like to thank all my friends who have helped and supported me, my teachers who have guided me and the directors of CCTV's Star Avenue, which gave me my first break and made me well-known among the public. Although one's success depends on one’s unremitting efforts and hard work, it also has a lot to do with the people who give you support and opportunities, and for mine, I am very grateful. 

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

My interpretation of female characters is limited to the stage. They have nothing to do with my real life.

Li Yugang

With your innovative temperament, do you enjoy many forms of music?

I like folk music a lot. I also like the traditional music of the Mongolian people. It's bold and desolate, and I've used it a lot in Lady Zhaojun. Privately, I sing different types of music because they are all the fruits of culture.

Do you have any favourite Western singers?

I love Teresa Teng and Sarah Brightman. I have sung their songs.

What are your other interests, apart from music? 

I love calligraphy, painting and film-making. 

I heard that you made a short film?

Yes, I directed and starred in a short film called People After Dusk because I’ve always loved movies, since I was a child, and always dreamt of making one myself. With this film, I wanted to tell a beautiful story about the Chinese cheongsam dress culture and the emotions it evokes. 

Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music
Photo: Courtesy of Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music

Don’t forget your original dreams, and never give up, even if obstacles and difficulties come your way. An opportunity becomes ‘lucky’ only if you are strong enough to use it. You can realise all your dreams, and become your own heroes.

Li Yugang

Do you still go back to your native village and visit your family and friends?

No matter how busy I am, I regularly visit my native village and do many charity projects there. That is where my life began, and it will remain my safe haven forever. The village folks are always so happy to see me. I think they are very proud of me.

What is your advice to youngsters who want to achieve their dreams? 

Don’t forget your original dreams, and never give up, even if obstacles and difficulties come your way. An opportunity becomes ‘lucky’ only if you are strong enough to use it. You can realise all your dreams, and become your own heroes.

Do you have any more dreams of your own, for the future?

I would like to present more of traditional Chinese culture through drama and performances so that more audiences can experience the charm and beauty of Oriental art. I also hope that Chinese culture will innovate along the way so that its fragrance will last forever.


Experience Lady Zhaojun on the Thailand Cultural Centre stage this weekend on October 5 or 6. For tickets, click here

Another must-read: Exclusive Interview: Jose Carreras Says Farewell With Glorious Music Of A Lifetime

Tags

Arts & Culture Bangkok's 21st International Festival of Dance and Music Lady Zhaojun exclusive interview Li yugang opera chinese opera international festival of dance and music

clear
keyboard_arrow_up

In order to provide you with the best possible experience, this website uses cookies. For more information, please refer to our Privacy Policy.

close