Saturday, February 12, 2011

Artist Interview: Bo Chang

I was delighted to cross paths with Classical singer and teacher Bo Chang when we were both in Mysore, India, to practice Ashtanga Yoga at The SK Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. Highly disciplined, Bo, who usually calls Harlem home, practiced singing each day amid her Sanskrit and yoga studies, and definitely showed me a thing or two about proper vocal technique. As she readied for teaching a master class and performing at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, Bo discussed her life in singing.

Q: How did you start singing? And what led you to classical?
I didn't start singing in front of other people until high school choir. All started from there. It was a very good a capella group. I was totally hooked. I sang show tunes and pop songs for fun until college when I had to make a decision about what to do with my voice. Classical technique is very specific and belting out show tunes wasn't exactly helping with technical consistency in my case. I've always loved classical music since I was a kid. Choosing it was not even a question. No one in my immediate family even listens to classical music. I'm the odd one.

Q: Who were/are your teachers? And/or do you have a mentor? If there's one thing you could tell a beginning singer what would it be?

BC: My first major teacher was Cynthia Hoffmann at Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. After graduation, I studied with Irene Gubrud. There are so many people involved in forming a classical singer, like diction and language coaches, conductors, collaborative pianists... I was really lucky to have studied with some of the best in the business. It's important to have a pair of ears you trust when you start out and continue in the profession. The most important thing is to study, study, study! Know your music, learn the languages, understand the style — all these while you patiently build your technique.

Q: What are some of your performance highlights? What's your favorite kind of gig?

BC: One of the most memorable tours was to travel with a group of performing artists in Mongolia. We traveled in old Soviet-era vans in the countryside (no roads!) and performed where the nomads gathered. The most musically satisfying concert was at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. I specialize in the music of modern composers and in Lucerne I got to work with some of the best. The attention to detail and the level of the musicians were simply sublime. I also occasionally sing in a professional chorus in NY. We sang the Brahms Requiem with the NY Philharmonic right after 9/11. The Phil canceled their season opening gala and played the Requiem. All of us, soloists, chorus, orchestra and crew, donated our service. That changed how I view my work, [and] what I should do with singing.

Q: Can you say if being in/practicing India has affected your singing? Do you relate your yoga practice to your singing practice in any way?

: You keep playing music for the love of it. If you look for a reward or some sort of result, it's hard to keep going because it's such a difficult and unstable business. Most musicians, unless superstars, teach or take other jobs to keep playing. It's the same in yoga. As instructed in the Bhagavad Gita, you practice with devotion without looking for any rewards. That's what really drew me to study yoga, reading the scriptures and realizing the similarities. Whether the asana and pranayama practice changes one's musical performance or technique is almost irrelevant, I think.

Q Tell us a bit about the Ravel song cycle, Histoires naturelles (song cycle) and how you chose it, and what you love about it?

I didn't choose the song cycle; it chose me. A very talented young director, Michael Rau, and a fabulous pianist, Jessica Chow were looking for a mezzo-soprano who knew AndrĂ© Caplet's Trois Fables de la Fontaine. I had performed it at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival. They asked me to join a theater project where they take a traditional song recital and stage it like a play with singers singing and acting different parts. I was assigned the Caplet songs and Ravel's Histoires Naturelles. It turns out the Ravel songs fit my voice perfectly! Since then, I've been singing them at every opportunity. The narrator observes five birds in five songs, and describes what he/she imagines to be the bird's motives in colorful and poignant detail. The 4th song, Martin-PĂȘcheur, is different and perhaps the most moving. A fisherman describes an encounter with the bird and how he felt truly one with nature. When I started working on that song, I used to cry every time I practiced it. They are all GREAT songs!

Q: Where can audiences find you in 2011

: Most likely in New York. I came to India without scheduling my 2011-2012 season. I just packed up and left! I have some recital projects in the works, but until everyone signs the contract, I can't really say ...;)

Bo performs at noon 2/16 at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. Her masterclass is on 2/15. Please contact the Academy for more information.

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