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Soaring soprano proves her point

YU Guanqun, a 26-year-old vocalist from Shandong Province, rebuts the labeling as "parasites" of her singlechild generation by clawing her way to be noticed at the top of the opera world, writes Nancy Zhang.

Lazy, indulgent and self-centered - these are common adjectives for the 1980s, single-child generation. In childhood they were described as "little emperors" showered with undivided attention from parents and grandparents. Now, as they approach adulthood, many still rely financially on their parents, prompting society to label them "the parasitic generation."

Not so, says Yu Guanqun, the 26-year-old soprano who rose to fame recently as one of China's new generation of noteworthy classical musicians. Not only did she beat 3,000 other hopefuls to win top prize at the prestigious 27th International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna last July, she is also a child of the 1980s. As invitations from Chinese media have flooded in, Yu has become something of a spokesperson for a much maligned generation.

"I hate being called 'lazy' because I was born in the 1980s," said the straight-talking girl from Shandong Province. "Our generation have worked hard, but the results are just beginning to show."

Yu's youthful talent is just now making its way in the limelight. It represents justification not only of her hard work but also the long-term support of her parents. Graduating in 2005 from the Shandong Institute of Arts, Yu chose to continue studying to hone her craft rather than get practical skills at a performing troupe.

It has been an expensive decision, with tuition and living fees mounting up, and her parents, both ordinary blue-collar workers, have shouldered the financial burden. But Yu says society often doesn't appreciate the leap of faith on both sides.

"I chose not to work because I knew it would distract me from really pursuing my dream," said Yu. "I don't care about gaining fame quickly; I want to accumulate real ability which takes time and study. But 'persistence' is a bad word these days - it means you're not making money."

Yu has the down-to-earth attitude and hearty physique typical of northern Chinese women. But her expressive eyes and face hint at a captivating stage presence that gives her singing the maturity she lacks in years. It is reported that Yu's competition rendition of Puccini's Madame Butterfly reduced members of the audience to tears.

In opera, this is almost as important as a powerful voice. Yu's possession of both the voice and the presence meant that she was plucked from the masses by a succession of teachers.

At age 18, she won a high school singing competition, and a teacher noted her early promise by commenting that she was the "right material" for a songstress. In 2006, one year after graduation, a visiting professor from Shanghai Conservatory of Music was so impressed by Yu, she was invited to study in Shanghai. According to Yu, the professor, Zhou Xiaoyan, later told her, "your voice wasn't perfect, but there was something in your eyes, like you have something to give to the audience."

It was a far cry from the energetic, tomboyish child she once was. Her parents gave her accordion lessons to keep her out of trouble, but Yu soon found ways to escape the lessons. It wasn't until she discovered singing at age 16 that she settled down to serious endeavor.

Before finding her passion, Yu had wanted to be a scientist. To this day, she says there is a part of her that regrets not following that path. But for the most part she realizes that the cold logic of science cannot satisfy the yearning for creativity that she has found in music.

"Anyone who has learned to sing becomes obsessed with their voice," she said. "The first thing I do every morning is check if my voice is still there because it means so much to me. Once you find that you can express something with your voice it becomes irresistible for the rest of your life. It compels me to try to become the character in the opera. It gives me more confidence than designing clothes."

Western opera makes challenging demands on Chinese classical singers. Not only must they learn the music, but also several foreign languages (Italian, German and French) and the opera's cultural contexts. Accumulating this knowledge takes years and is the reason Yu has insisted on continued studies.

But contact with Western high culture has not overwhelmed Yu's earthy Shandong roots. Even as she makes profound points about art, about life and herself, she does so with the simple language and metaphor of a woman who describes herself as, "100 percent made in China."

She recently bought a bookcase for 30 yuan (US$4) as reading is one of her few hobbies outside of music.

"Reading make me realize that life, and art, always have different interpretations. It teaches me that I need to know more," she said. "A soprano needs to know so much about culture, emotion and human stories. The voice is just a tool but the soul is more important - and the soul is fed by books." But, she adds jokingly, "lately I've made a great discovery - you can read almost everything online. I belong to the 1980s generation after all."

Of her feelings after the recent competition win, she said: "Of course I'm happy. But it's like I've been queuing all my life and I have just now got to the door of a house. I don't need to queue anymore, which is good, but I still don't know what will happen in the house, and whether I'll get to the room I need to be in."

Like many young adults in their mid-20s, Yu's belief in the path she has chosen swings between confidence and doubt.

But at these times, financial support from her parents represents their belief in her, even though in the artistic fields only the very talented make a lot of money, and talent is an intangible, elusive quality to invest in.

"I told my dad, it's like you're buying stocks by supporting me. Aren't you afraid the stock won't climb? And he said, 'it doesn't matter, I'm holding the stocks, that's good enough for me'." But, said Yu, "I'm afraid I won't live up to their expectations."

Parental expectations are often the price for the attention lavished on single children throughout their lives. Yu notes that she knows many young people of her age whose parents won't support dreams that are too idealistic even if they have the means.

Other classmates entered music for the wrong reasons - thinking that it was an easy ticket to university. But without the natural aptitude and interest it became impossible to continue, wasting all their previous efforts and years.

In this regard, Yu considers herself very lucky as her talent, passion and family support have neatly aligned. "God must like me," she said.

But she also has optimism about the future that is typical of her generation, believing that as long as a person is suited to a task, and is willing to work hard, success must follow. She cites the example of a fashion designer friend who is contemplating leaving a stable, well-paid job to open her own business. "I said to her, I absolutely support you," said Yu.

Of her own aims she said: "I want to be one of the greatest sopranos in the world. I want to show the world that Chinese classical musicians can be just as good. The cultural barriers need not be barriers. I believe I have the talent, even at this age I can understand the music. Just give me the time and the opportunity, I can understand the culture and become a great singer in my own right."


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