Dream Begins for a CUNY Soprano

Adapted and expanded here is a story from a new second-season edition of “Study With the Best,” a regularly scheduled 30-minute TV news magazine highlighting CUNY’s wide array of outstanding faculty, remarkable students and alumni, and major University academic initiatives. The lively, fast-paced series (CUNY- TV Channel 75, Sundays at 8) is aimed particularly at prospective CUNY students in local high schools.

For several years, Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen opera about love among the hard-of- luck, budding artists, La Bohème, has been thriving on Broadway in disguise: Jonathan Larson’s rock-musical riff on the story Rent, set in today’s East Village. Now the opera itself—every note Puccini’s—is making its Broadway debut in a popular, critically acclaimed production directed by Baz Luhrmann.

Soprano Wei Huang
There are three rotating pairs of romantic leads in this Bohème, which is set in 1950s Paris. One of the sopranos singing the role of Mimi is 22-year-old Wei Huang, who left China to attend Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music. She never imagined that only a year later she would land the coveted role of Mimi, the poor seamstress with tiny frozen hands (“Che gelida manina…”).

Wei credits her voice teachers at Brooklyn College with helping her achieve this success so soon, but they had no doubt she would quickly command the spotlight.

“When I was very little, I liked singing, but mostly Chinese pop music. I really loved singing,” Huang recalls. “I never thought seriously of singing on the stage—being a professional or operatic singer.”
Nevertheless, Huang decided to audition at the Conservatory for a Master’s degree in vocal performance, and she was accepted in early 2000.

The Conservatory’s Opera Theatre program has approximately 40 voice candidates, says Richard Barrett, its director. “The primary emphasis is on performance. The students come from all over the world. We have Koreans, Germans, Chinese, French—you name it.”

One of the program’s voice teachers, William Woodruff explains, “My main task is to teach these students how to sing, but the other part of our job is also to get them ready for a career. It’s not just to sing in one’s own living room and develop a pretty tone. Our students must learn how to use their voices professionally—how to turn their studies here into a professional career.”

In addition to theory courses, Huang particularly valued the experience gained in the Master’s workshops. “Every semester the Conservatory stages an opera performed by a student cast, and I was very lucky to get opportunities to practice on stage regularly.”

Conductor Barrett recalls working with Huang. “I put her in four operas here at the College. The first time was difficult for her, because she was not used to someone saying ‘move left’ or ‘move right and go downstage, then back.’ But she was great—and in the second opera even better.”

Barrett adds, “Wei’s final performance for us was in the title role of Lehár’s Merry Widow, which we did in English. Of all the people on stage, she was the singer you could understand best!”

“One day last year I was chatting with my vocal coach,” Huang recalls, “and she asked if I had heard about a new production of Bohème on Broadway. At first, I thought: ‘Opera on Broadway? What a weird idea!’” But Huang continued pondering. “Could I really sing on Broadway?” Her initial answer to the question changed from “no” to “why not?” So she decided to go to the audition.

Barrett says, “Every soprano in town—and many from outside it—was auditioning for the part. I asked her to tell me exactly what they said after the first go-round. I guaranteed Wei she’d get the part if she was invited back.”

She was, and she did. Not to Barrett’s great surprise. “She’s a talented, gifted young performer with a beautiful voice, and she’s going to do well—as you can see already.”

“I was so excited!” Huang remembers. “Wow, I thought, my first opera—in New York, in America—will be on Broadway! My experience at Brooklyn College really helped me to understand that ‘singing’ is not just singing. It’s everything—acting and interacting with other vocalists. It means being an artist…”

Then Wei Huang adds a remark that is doubtless music to the ears of her teachers at the Conservatory: “I think my dream is starting now…yes, now is the beginning of my dream.”

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