Shu-Ying Li understands the passion the queer community has for opera because she shares it.
The grand operas — like Opera Lyra Ottawa’s production of Madama Butterfly, at the National Arts Centre from April 19 to 26 — have breathtaking costumes and beautiful music, but most of all, opera moves us because of the way it depicts love, Li says.
“My friends who are gay, they’re so loving and so caring. They have a very special loving in their soul,” she says. “That’s why I think the opera really attracts me, attracts the audience. We all are human beings. We all came into the world and we all are the same. The more tragedy, the more drama, the more life in it.”
Li, a Chinese soprano (whose first name is sometimes spelled Xiuying), has sung with opera companies in Asia, Europe and the United States, performing many of opera’s great heroines, from Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème to Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo. But it is for her portrayal of Butterfly that she’s perhaps most celebrated.
“The first time I did this role, actually, it was in the United States, with Rhode Island Opera in 2002,” Li says. “We had two casts. The first cast had a very famous Butterfly. Her name is Maria Spacagna. I was so fortunate to have rehearsals with the world-famous Butterfly at that time, and I learned so much from her.”
Since her debut as Butterfly 12 years ago, Li has sung the role countless times, including an award-winning performance with the New York City Opera. She concentrates not just on the singing and the emotion, but on the mannerisms and body movement to transform herself into a Japanese teenager.
“After my first Butterfly, I went back to New York and studied with the world-famous soprano Renata Scotto,” Li says. “She gave me lots of great ideas about this character, like the hand movement — how my hands, my fingers should not open — and my knees, to walk, have to be like they’re tied together. The steps have to be very small and very light to look much younger, like 15, the teenager geisha move.”
Li is enthusiastic about her Opera Lyra co-stars, acclaimed baritone James Westman and Quebec tenor Antoine Bélanger, calling them both “fabulous.” Westman portrays American consul Sharpless, and Bélanger, a rising star in the opera world, plays Li’s love interest, Lieutenant Pinkerton. Li also has kind words for Francois Racine, who’s directing Madama Butterfly.
“We’ve got a great director,” Li says. “He’s very detailed with each character, and he really gives each of us so many brilliant ideas.”
The much-loved opera follows a young woman full of love and hope to a tragic end, but for Li, even the tragedy is beautiful.
“The dying is always beautiful because at the end, Butterfly, she dies, but she died with honesty,” she says. “If you die, no matter what, with so much love inside of you, I think that’s the most beautiful thing.”