When baritone Chen-Ye Yuan auditioned for Roger Brunyate two years ago, the Peabody Opera director wrote at the time that "his was the best voice I had ever heard without having to pay for the privilege."
Last month, Chen-Ye, now a student at Peabody, was a winner in the final round of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions Competition from a field of over 2,000 entries.
And just a few weeks before the Met competition, this 30-year-old singer, who comes from the town of Shenyang in the far north of China, won first prize and the people's choice award in the Houston Grand Opera Competition. His other wins include the coveted gold medal in the 1994 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, as well as top prizes in major competitions in Helsinki, Tokyo and Madrid. No wonder that Placido Domingo has kept his eye on this young singer, inviting him to perform at the Washington Opera's Domin-go Gala at the Kennedy Center in 1996.
This weekend will be Baltimore's last chance to hear Chen-Ye Yuan perform while he is a Peabody student. In three performances of "The Mystery Theatre of Love and Death" with the Peabody Chamber Opera, Chen-Ye will take on the role of Death in Holst's Savitri, one of the three short 20th-century operas comprising the program.
A graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Chen-Ye had already performed lead roles with the principal opera companies of Beijing before coming, with his pianist wife, Hon-Xu (who accompanies him for competitions), to study at Peabody with John Shirley-Quirk.
Britisher Shirley-Quirk is internationally famous in the world of opera for premiering roles in all of Benjamin Britten's last five operas, culminating in his virtuoso multi-character role of the Traveller, written specially for him in Death in Venice.
However, over the past two weeks, he has been coaching Chen-Ye in a role that bridges east and west. It is the role of Death in the chamber opera Savitri, based on Hindu legend, and composed by Swedish composer Gustav Holst. The opera tells of a beautiful and heroic woman, Savitri, who bargains with Death for the life of her husband. Peabody will present the opera with an all-Asian cast directed by Roger Brunyate, who hails from Northern Ireland.
This will be Chen-Ye Yuan's last performance as a Peabody student, as this summer he will enter an apprentice program at the San Francisco Opera. The coaching for Savitri has had to be fitted into a crash schedule of rehearsals wedged in between Chen-Ye's Metropolitan Opera commitments, which included singing in the Winners Concert, broadcast nationally April 5 from the stage of the Met in New York City. All 10 Metropolitan Opera winners received two weeks of intensive coaching from Met artists prior to that concert.
While a student at Peabody, Chen-Ye Yuan has sung with the Peabody Opera Theatre as the jealous Mr. Ford in a 1996 production of Verdi's Falstaff, and in the title role in Mozart's Don Giovanni in spring 1997, both directed by Brunyate.
When he entered Peabody in September 1996, the young Chinese baritone's English consisted of a few phrases helped out by an engaging smile. "At first, I used to work with him on a week-by-week basis, mainly teaching him Western approaches to acting," recalls Brunyate. "When I used a word that he did not understand, I would laboriously punch it into his hand-held translation machine, and mysteriously Chinese characters would appear on the screen that generally, but not always, cleared everything up. But sometimes I would resort to physical means, rehearsing the Barber of Seville aria, for example, while playing catch with a pillow, or the Don Giovanni duet while encircling some soprano with a thin strand of twine."
One of John Shirley-Quirk's favorite maxims is: "A singer needs to be three-dimensional, not simply a walking voice." Shirley-Quirk himself is a good example of his own maxim. He began life as a scientist, and the only music academy he attended was the real-life one of working with the "Who's Who" of the music world, from Benjamin Britten to Mstislav Rostropovich. The Shirley-Quirk discography now runs to over 100 recordings.
So, as is usually the case at Peabody, the student/teacher relationship is about one established artist nurturing the career of an emerging artist. This includes developing the widest possible repertoire, in this case symphonic as well as operatic. Chen-Ye Yuan makes his debut with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in July as baritone soloist in Beethoven's Ninth and Dvorak's Te Deum.
Chen-Ye has already performed as a soloist with orchestras or in recital in Finland, Germany, Greece, Japan, Korea, the Phillipines, Thailand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. He is so highly regarded in his own country that he was a member of the Chinese delegation attending the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Canada. While a student at Peabody, he has also won small roles with the Baltimore Opera (Prince Yamadori in Madama Butterfly and the Duke of Verona in Romeo and Juliette). With the San Francisco Opera Company this summer he will sing Germont in La Traviata.
Since winning the Houston Grand Opera Competition and the Met finals, many other offers are coming in. When Chen-Ye graduates from Peabody in May, it will not be a question of what offers are out there but which offers he wants to accept.