Beijing opera singer Peixin Chen makes his San Diego Opera debut
The bass singer plays Don Basilio in the drive-in version of “The Barber of Seville”
Making his San Diego Opera debut in the upcoming drive-in production of “The Barber of Seville” is bass singer Peixin Chen.
Chen, who plays Don Basilio, is a rising opera talent from China who recently graduated from the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and was part of San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Program.
The singer was born in Inner Mongolia, but went to university in Beijing. That’s where he’s been for much of the past year due to the pandemic. When he returns to live performances, it will be under unique circumstances — singing for people in their cars, and using amplification on his voice.
But Chen, who has also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera, is happy to be back out in front of an audience no matter what that looks like. He took some time before heading to San Diego to discuss his training, his obstacles and what he’ll miss most about China when he goes back on tour.
Q: How were you first introduced to opera?
A: First time I saw an opera was in Beijing, and it was a concert version of “Carmen.” I went to see it with my good friend who was an opera singer, and he told me that I could be a good Zuniga in the future.
Q: How did it make you feel hearing voices singing this way for the first time?
A: I was really shocked. That was my first time to see someone singing on stage without a microphone, and with the accompaniment of an orchestra and chorus, especially when they work together. So beautiful ... yes, definitely shocked!
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in opera?
A: I like music since I was a child, and I went to the Central Conservatory of Music (in Beijing) to study opera. But really thought about to starting an opera career since 2009, when I worked with a famous opera director Francesca Zambello. I was singing Zuniga in her “Carmen” production (at China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts), and I was in the chorus at that time. But she told me that “you have an international voice, boy, do you want to come to America study?” And I said “YES.” She recommended me to audition to the San Francisco Opera summer program called Merola, which I did and it started my career — by then, it was 2011.
Q: Was going to San Francisco your first visit to America? What was that like?
A: The audition was in New York, in the winter of 2011, and that was my first time to America. I stayed in New York City for five days. The Merola program was in the summer of 2011 — it was my second time to America. I really had a hard time during those nine weeks. My English was almost zero. The hardest thing was having coachings and master classes because of the language barrier. Most of the time I was guessing what they wanted me to do, and what I had to do ... I made a lot of jokes because of it.
Q: Please describe what training to be an opera performer is like.
A: Of course voice lessons, and coachings, languages (Italian, German, French, etc.), and to me, of course, to learn English. Voice lessons and coaching are very rigorous, sometimes it makes you want to quit this career, but also it helps you to get better and better.
Q: How do you take care of your voice?
A: I am still taking voice lesson sometimes, just want to make sure I am still singing in the right way. I take a good rest before performances.
Q: Do you have any routines you do on a performance day?
A: Not really! Just sleep well and eat well. I do not drink and eat spicy food, which I love, but it negatively affects my voice.
Q: What are some of the favorite roles you’ve played?
A: I like most roles I have played, and it is hard to say which are my favorites. If I must choose, I’d say Verdi’s requiem, Figaro in Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)” and Bartolo in Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)” So many of them.
Q: What his this last year in quarantine been like for you?
A: Last year was so hard to describe for all opera singers or musicians, and all the stage workers. I had 11 productions canceled; it was a hard year for me and my family. However I had lots of family time. I have a 5-year-old boy, so I think this is the most happy thing I have done for the past year.
Q: How do you keep in touch with your family when you’re performing around the world?
A: I miss (my family) a lot when I am traveling. I have to say the internet is an amazing thing in this world, it makes connection between people easy. I usually use Facetime or WeChat apps to make video call with my family daily. And when I am home, we are inseparable.
Q: Do you have any advice for young Asian or Pacific Islander performers looking for a career in opera?
A: Opera singer or any kind of performing career is hard, especially for Asians. I just want to say: work hard, be positive and good luck!
Q: Your performance at San Diego Opera will be a drive-in opera. Is this your first? How do you think it will be different singing to people in their cars?
A: Yes, it is my first drive-in opera but it is not first time to sing an opera with microphone on stage. I have had some outdoor theater performances with a microphone, the difference is for the sound designer and the audiences. For singers, we just sing like normal, but our voices will go through microphones, so the sound designer will be in control for all the balance of the audio, so it maybe a little different to hear our voice than directly from stage.
Q: Is there an opera or aria that you would recommend to people who are new to the artform?
A: Of course “Carmen,” that was my first, and I would recommend people who are new to the opera. “Carmen” is a great opera to see: love, hate, death ...
Q: What are you looking forward to about performing in San Diego?
A: I am just very excited to make my debut at San Diego Opera soon, and so eager to sing on the stage since COVID-19. And I am sure it will be a great production, and we will have a lots of fun together. I’ve heard so much about this beautiful city. I’m anxious to visit and experience the “kicked back” atmosphere, beaches, and sun-kissed people.
“The Barber of Seville” happens at 7:30 p.m. April 25, April 27, April 30 and May 1 at Pechanga Arena San Diego, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District. Tickets are $200 to $300 per car; find details at sdopera.org.
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