When did you start singing?
I always loved to sing since I was a child. I sang on every occasion, also during public events at school, where my maths teacher heard me and advised me to take singing lesson with her neighbour who was a voice teacher. He listened me, and he told me that I was ready to attend the conservatoire in Xi'an, my city. I went there, in few years I became the best student, and they asked me to start to teach students who were older than me.
In 1998 I debuted in Shanghai with Aida that is now one of my signature roles. In 2000 I started my international career after winning Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition in Los Angeles. From that moment all the biggest opera houses around the world opened their doors to me and I sang regularly at La Scala, Opéra de Paris, Wiener Staatsoper, Arena di Verona (where I recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of my debut there) and The Metropolitan Opera where I'll return on 12 October with Madama Butterfly. It will be my 5th time at the Met and my 3rd time as Cio Cio San.
Why did you start singing?
Singing is my way to express my soul and my emotions. I heard opera for the first time at the conservatoire, a recording of La Bohème with Mirella Freni as Mimì and I fell in love with that music… I cried, and I thought opera was where I should head in life.
Which singer inspired you most when you were young?
Absolutely Maria Callas!
Which singer do you most admire?
Maria Callas will be my inspiration forever, but I also adore Montserrat Caballé.
What's your favourite role?
I don't have a favourite role… I love all the roles that are in my repertoire… they're like my children!
What role have you never played but would like to?
Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Norma… but they're two roles that I hope to sing in the future… never say never!
What's your favourite opera to watch?
Manon Lescaut! I love that music and that story!
Who is your favourite composer?
Puccini and Verdi are the composers to whom I dedicated the largest part of my career.
Who is your favourite writer?
I love the poetry of Luigi Illica, one of the most important playwrights of the late 19th century and librettist of some of the most important of Puccini's operas.
Who is your favourite theatre or film director?
I love Hugo de Ana, a wonderful director with whom I have worked with in many amazing productions.
Who is your favourite actor?
Who is your favourite dancer?
What is your favourite book?
The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham.
What is your favourite film?
Roberto Benigni's La vita è bella… so beautiful and poetic!
Which is your favourite city?
Verona, the city where I decided to live!
What do you like most about yourself?
What do you dislike about yourself?
Nothing… let's say I'd like to be thinner… lol!
What was your proudest moment?
I'm the proudest person in the world when I'm on stage.
When and where were you happiest?
When I'm on stage and singing well, in top form!
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear would be that I couldn't sing again.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to have been stronger.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I think that my greatest achievement is my career because I'm a Chinese woman that has a great career in the world of Italian opera. It wasn't easy to absorb a different culture and way of living and thinking, but music is a universal language because it's made from emotions and themes that are part of all of our lives. I'm proud of what I achieved. Today I can say that I have been brave and I hope that my story can motivate people. I'm so happy that it has inspired a movie, Hui He: the soprano from the Silk Road by Andrea Prandstraller and Niccolò Bruna and a book, Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera by Melanie Ho.
What is your most treasured possession?
Can I say my voice? I think yes… that's the most precious gift.
What is your greatest extravagance?
We are artists, so extravagance is the rule!
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
If It's a virtue, it can't be overrated!
On what occasion do you lie?
Michonnet in the first act of Adriana Lecouvreur sings, “Men sincera è la stessa verità” (More sincere than truth itself)… We're actors and sometimes lying is human.
If you hadn't been a singer what would you have liked to be?
Maybe a painter… but maybe when I retire I will organise exhibitions with my paintings!
What is your most marked characteristic?
My passion and my sensitivity.
What quality do you most value in a friend?
Sincerity and honesty.
What quality do you most value in a colleague?
Kindness and respect.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Maria Callas: she wasn't only a singer, but an artist that completely changed the world of art, even becoming a fashion icon. She is an inspiration for all of us.
Which living person do you most admire?
I admire so much Maestro Marco Armiliato with whom I made my debut at Salzburg Festival with Adriana Lecouvreur in August 2019, and Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi who will conduct my performances of Madama Butterfly at The Metropolitan Opera.
What do you most dislike?
What talent would you most like to have?
I would like to be a professional painter.
What's your idea of perfect happiness?
My happiness is being a true artist.
How would you like to die?
I died so many times on stage that when the final moment of my life arrives I will have done thousands of dress rehearsals!
What is your motto?
三人行必有我师 (When I walk with two others, they may serve as my teachers.*)
* When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them. – Confucious
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.