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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

HOT's 'Carmen' features mezzo soprano born in China

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

Ning Liang plays the title role in Hawaii Opera Theatre's production of Georges Bizet's much-loved opera "Carmen."

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser


An opera by Georges Bizet, in French, with English supertitles

8 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday

Blaisdell Concert Hall


596-7858, hawaiiopera.org

Featuring: Ning Liang as Carmen, Matthew Kirchner as Don Joe, Philip Skinner as Escamillo, Karen Driscoll as Micaela, Mary Chesnut as Frasquita; Bernard Uzan, director; Honolulu Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Flint.

She's a native of China who now lives in Germany, and she is playing a Spaniard, singing in French, in Georges Bizet's "Carmen," opening tonight at Blaisdell Concert Hall.

It's all in a day's work for mezzo soprano Ning Liang.

"It's my child's dream, to be in Hawai'i, a paradise for me," said Liang, who left chilly Hamburg to make her island debut. Carmen is the last of Hawaii Opera Theatre's three productions this season.

While she's learned to speak multiple tongues to better understand the international roles she takes on as a professional opera singer, Liang said it never comes easily. It takes time, oodles of of practice, unflagging effort.

"My first opera was 'Marriage of Figaro,' and it was sung in Chinese," said Liang. "I had no experience, and I still have the videotape. I've learned and grown from that first time, but you never stop learning. Or struggling. Especially in learning the languages."

"Carmen" is one of her favorites, a role she has inhabited a number of times before. "But every time, it's different," she said. "And this time, it's directed by a Frenchman, Bernard Uzad, who is a good director, but he makes me a little bit scared. French is not my mother language, and he convinces you to convince yourself before you can convince an audience."

Cultural baggage has been part of her difficulty in mastering "Carmen," she said. "The character is a Spanish girl, I am Chinese, and in our culture, women are more introverted, not like Carmen, who makes no compromises, who's forward, who can die for love. I had to break my own cultural barriers to be brave, to be open, to show lust in my eyes and in my movement. Carmen is not the (picture of) elegance; when she walks, everyone pays attention. She's very different from what I am accustomed to."

While Chinese (she speaks two dialects) is her mother tongue, Liang said, it's vital for an opera performer to know of what she sings. Hence, she's studied German, French and Italian, and mastered English through classes at Juilliard, where she earned her master's degree.

"When I was a student, I would take my music to the cafeteria to memorize during lunch," said Liang. "You don't know how difficult it is for me to learn ... but it's so important to know what you're singing about. Every day, I study or sing, especially before a role. I have spent so much money on a good music coach. But that's the only way. You can't build a house in a day."

Liang's prowess as an opera singer and her Chinese heritage reflect the international scope of the genre, which has seen a number of Asian performers, both male and female, excel.

"When I was young, I was taking ballet, but my mom, who was a musician, didn't feel my career was developing, so I studied voice," said Liang, who now sashays between operas to recitals to concerts in classical music. "While I'm Chinese-born, I had no interest in Peking opera, which was my culture. When I started studying voice, making a decision to be a professional singer, I had to go to Juilliard."

She says American music schools do a better job training singers than their European counterparts do. "In America, there is good discipline, good music ability. You learn for your future — the discipline required. In Hamburg, you don't have to go to school every day; it's up to you, a different mentality — something difficult for me to deal with."

As a student, Liang was a winner of several voice contests, including the Metropolitan National Council Competition and the Loren L. Zachary Competition, which not only gave her early recognition but the opportunity to perform before agents from Europe, who served as jurors.

"Competitions are important because you not only get valuable experience, you hear and see other singers to help in your own development," she said.

Although here for a couple of weeks, Liang hasn't had time to play tourist. "I'm a professional, so work comes first," she said. "Can't be exposed to the sun or go to the beach until performances are over. I want to go to Pearl Harbor, drive (a) car, enjoy wonderful food." It all comes later, when her four-performance stint ends Thursday.