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Liping Zhang is a thoroughly cosmopolitan 'Madame Butterfly'
Chinese soprano Liping Zhang has built a career out of playing submissive, self-negating heroines in the operas "Madame Butterfly" and "Turandot," both by Giacomo Puccini.
In person, however, Zhang in many ways represents the polar opposite of the Orientalist roles she so often performs. Gregarious and cosmopolitan, the Beijing-based singer is a thoroughly global creature who seems to embody the restless spirit of the Asian cultural zeitgeist.
During a recent break from rehearsals at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where she is scheduled to make her Los Angeles Opera debut tonight in the title role of "Butterfly," she was showing off some acquisitions from a German shopping spree in Munich.
"It's one of the best places I've ever shopped -- the sweaters and the shoes!" she said. Her spiky red Italian pumps, in particular, elicited admiration from the L.A. Opera staff. "They look uncomfortable, but actually they're the most comfortable shoes I have," she insisted.
Afterward, sitting down for an interview, Zhang spoke fluent but somewhat hesitant English. When she couldn't find the right word, she flipped open her Nokia cellphone to consult a Chinese-English dictionary application that pronounced the English words for her in an electronic drawl.
"I only speak three languages -- Mandarin, English and Italian," she said somewhat apologetically. (She also sings in French.)
The ability to comprehend different cultures is something Zhang's Cio-Cio-San in "Butterfly" lacks, with tragic consequences. But the soprano herself has no trouble adapting to new surroundings and cultures. In fact, she seems to thrive on it.
Zhang, who was educated at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing -- an elite school that also claims pianist Lang Lang and composer Tan Dun as former students -- moved to Vancouver at 23 to pursue a career in the Western opera world. She gradually built her reputation in Canada and the U.S. before moving to London to launch a European career.
To date, she has performed "Butterfly," her signature role, in 10 different productions -- at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin and other major houses.
"It can get boring sometimes when a production is boring," she admitted. "But when you work with a good conductor and cast, you never get bored."
A critic for the British newspaper the Guardian wrote in 2007 that Zhang has "unforgettable presence in the role. Hers is not a big or even a particularly interesting voice. But in every other way, Zhang is Butterfly."
For L.A. Opera's latest revival of its 2004 Robert Wilson production, Zhang and the cast assume a series of android-like poses against a Minimalist backdrop. When Zhang first performed Wilson's production two years ago in Paris, members of the cast "were crying and saying they couldn't do it," she recalled. "But after a while, you keep practicing and your muscles get used to it."
L.A. Opera music director James Conlon, who will conduct this month's performances, said, "The real difficulty of the role is sustaining it. You have to answer all of the vocal demands and carry almost the entire opera. It's a case of endurance."
"A lot of people say the role is too heavy for my voice," said Zhang, whose repertoire consists mostly of bel canto and lyric parts. "But I know how to adjust myself to a part no matter what. I'm confident because I'm a good musician. I can do Butterfly better than a lot of singers."
Zhang's international career is light-years away from her childhood in the closed society of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Growing up near Wuhan, China, she frequently attended propagandist musical spectacles with titles such as "How Great Is the Communist Party."
"We didn't care about the story. We just liked the singing," she said.
By the time she began her vocal training, though, China had started to open its doors to Western cultural influences. During one class, Zhang saw a filmed performance of Verdi's "La Traviata" starring Plácido Domingo. She said the movie was the catalyst that made her want to pursue Western-style opera.
Several years later, she was selected from among students at the Central Conservatory to perform with Domingo in an outdoor concert at Tiananmen Square.
"That was my first exposure to Liping Zhang, and I will never forget that remarkable experience," Domingo said in a recent interview. The L.A. Opera general director added that companies in the West are looking to work more with China's best singers, "and Li- ping is certainly one of them."
Zhang graduated from the Central Conservatory in June 1989, at the height of the Tiananmen Square student protests. She was ready to jump on a plane to begin her studies in Vancouver when the bloody government-ordered crackdown on the protesters took place. "It was a really difficult time, but surprisingly I didn't have any trouble getting a visa," she said.
Zhang wound up spending almost 20 years working abroad before recently moving back to Beijing, where she has assumed a post at her alma mater as director of the voice and opera department.
"I'm more interested in doing things in China now. I think the country has so much more opportunity for the young generations of singers," she said. "But China has really just started in opera. In the West, it's already a mature system."
When not jetting from one job to another -- she recently completed a solo disc for EMI in London that will come out in the U.S. in November -- Zhang lives with her husband and grade-school-age son in Beijing's Western district.
In the near future, she intends to spend more time performing in Asia, and she is booked to star in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" and Verdi's "Il Trovatore" in Macao and Hong Kong, respective- ly. Next year, she will sing the lead role in "La Traviata" in Beijing.
Zhang believes there's no reason why China can't have an opera company on the same level as the Met or England's Royal Opera.
"The problem with China is that we really don't know how to produce opera -- you know, the administrative things that go on backstage," she said. "They need people who have worked a lot in the West to help them and to show them the shortcuts. That's what interests me now, and I want to be part of that."
"Madame Butterfly," Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 tonight; 2 p.m. Sunday; 1 p.m. Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10; 2 p.m. Oct. 12; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 18. (Michele Crider will sing Cio-Cio-San on Oct. 18.) $20 to $250. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com.