Countertenor Meili Li: ‘It’s not easy as a Chinese person to be accepted’

Finding a footing in the world of opera takes grit but this is a singer who likes a challenge

It’s a perfectly routine story of a musical childhood in so many respects. But, as China’s first countertenor, Meili Li (33), fills me in on the background to his early musical life, some rather more unusual details begin to appear.

His parents are both musical. His father studied singing but didn’t make it his career, and now works in a TV station. His mother is a radio presenter who loves doing music programmes. There was always music in the home and, when his love of singing became obvious, he was encouraged to join a choir in Guangzhou, his “home town” in south China (in actual fact a city of 15 million people).

As he tells the story, the first oddity was when his voice began to break. “It took a long time for me to lose my treble voice,” he tells me in a Zoom call from a sunny park in south Berlin, with the sounds of birdsong in the background. “It was very hard for me – I wanted to maintain my high notes.”

So, after a time, he started singing in falsetto without even knowing what that was. And he didn't know what a countertenor was, either. "It just wasn't a thing in China at that time. I thought I was a freak." Obviously Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and the likes of Alfred Deller and his successors didn't feature in the family music collection.

He even managed to get his parents seriously worried, because he liked to talk to them in falsetto, too. Trying to maintain something of the sound of his boyhood singing voice even became a burden. “I almost wished someone else had the voice, not me.”

‘Almost crying’

He was in his late teens when his father took him to a friend and he heard, on a CD of the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, Vivaldi being sung in a voice like his own. "I was almost crying and trying to sing along. Then I saw his picture. He was in his mid-30s. And I realised you could do this for a long time. The voice won't disappear. I decided then I wanted to do what he was doing."

He didn’t study music straight away. “I actually did film and philosophy for my first degree in university in Beijing. Then I met a professor from the Central Conservatory of Music, who was willing to teach me for free because he’d never taught any countertenor before. So it was like a teaching experiment. I was his guinea pig.”

It all worked out well, he says, because after four years the Royal Academy of Music in London gave him a full scholarship and I went there to do a master’s degree in singing. “Then I did an opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. That started my career, and then I moved to Germany a year later, because of Brexit, and also because Germany has a bigger opera market.”  There was another reason, too. “I wanted to come to Germany because my idol, Andreas Scholl, is German. And now I’m actually working here.”

I realised that when I'm on stage I'm very dramatic. I love this kind of thing

Given the much bandied-about statistic of there being 50 million people studying piano in China, did he ever come under pressure to take it up? “No. I didn’t. There are a lot of people who study piano. A lot of students study piano not because they love music or their parents love music, it’s because everyone else is studying piano.”

He puts it down to his parents’ sensitivity that he didn’t have to. “They used to live in Xinjiang in the northwest of China. At that time they were living under the planned economy. They wanted to buy a piano and it was not possible unless you got a ticket. They got a ticket that allowed them to buy a piano and they spent all their savings on it. It was so expensive that you could actually have bought a small flat for the same money.”

Failed audition

But he failed his piano audition. “When I was a baby, my dad held me in front of the piano and he struck a very low chord. I cried. My dad thought, ‘My son, he doesn’t like piano. I’m not going to force him to play.’ They spent all this money to buy the piano so that I could play it when I grew up. But they never made me study. In a way I think that was for the best. Most of my friends who studied piano as kids don’t play at all now. But I’ve maintained my love of music because nobody was forcing me to learn it.”

Opera didn’t really feature in his childhood, he says. “I’m sure I was taken to some performances. But it wasn’t a big thing when I was a kid. I don’t remember being taken to a complete opera. It was when I was in Beijing, studying film and studying singing on the side, that I started going to opera. I remember seeing Handel’s Semele in Beijing, performed by a British opera company, and some of the people who sang in it later became my classmates at the academy and later my colleagues.”

It was when he was in London that he had his first real immersion in opera. “I realised that when I’m on stage I’m very dramatic. I love this kind of thing. I love it more than just singing in oratorio or in church – which can also be dramatic, but in a different way. I did acting training as a kid, and I enjoyed it a lot. It connects with opera. And on top of that I really enjoy speaking foreign languages. I never deliberately thought about opera. But when it comes down to it, I’m pretty good with it . . . the drama, the acting, the singing, the feeling of music, the foreign languages. It’s the perfect combination of what I love.”

I just have to work extra hard to prove to them that I can actually sing better Italian than some other European singers

Even for people who grow up in the world of music and opera, figuring out the nuts and bolts of a performing career can be very challenging. And for someone who’s Chinese and a countertenor, “Finding a footing in this world is particularly difficult. Especially as a countertenor. In Germany, you can be hired by a theatre and get a fixed position as part of the company, even as a soloist, which almost doesn’t exist in any other country. But, as a countertenor, you’re always doing freelance work.

“A week ago I finally got a residency card for the EU, which really gives me stability. Before that it felt like I was floating in the air and nothing was stable for me. It was a very tough time. But I’ve received a lot of help and had good opportunities, like jumping in for Theater an der Wien in Vienna, just before Covid, in Handel’s Giustino.”

‘Convervative ideas’

He got the call 10 days before opening night when they needed a new singer for the title role. “They called me – I was in Iceland! And I learnt the role in 10 days – that really opened some doors for me. It’s not easy as a Chinese person to be accepted. Opera is on the one hand very open, very creative. But on the other hand there are conservative ideas and values behind it. It’s always a combat between the two.” He instances one of the misperceptions he encounters. “I just have to work extra hard to prove to them that I can actually sing better Italian than some other European singers.”

He’ll be making his role debut as the Orfeo of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Lismore. “I’ve obviously sung the famous aria Che farò senza Euridice? It’s one of the most famous arias for countertenor. I know all about the importance of Gluck as an opera reformer. I’ve done two different Orfeos – Monteverdi’s, in which I covered the role of hope, Speranza, in the Royal Opera House, and sang one of the spirits from hell. And I did a contemporary Orfeo in Beijing Music Festival, a newly-written one, presented in an immersive opera style.”

So, as he puts it, he’s already familiar with “the lamenting, sighing, and singing about the vow to bring his love back". He laughs as he points out that Orfeo in Gluck’s opera “has a lot to sing”. He relishes the challenge of “going into a state of conveying an emotion, in the most pure and innocent way, instead of trying to show off the voice or anything else. It’s still beautiful and dramatic in its simplicity. It feels so wholesome. And I love interacting with the chorus. I’m looking forward to the dancers, because so much of it is ballet music.” It is, he says, “the most important role so far for me”.

The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival's production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is on June 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th. The festival runs from May 31st to June 6th.

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