Students from the Academia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on their recent tour to Asia. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Students from the Academia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on their recent tour to Asia. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

When Dou Qianming burst on to the stage for his performance in the Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s recent recital in Hong Kong, the baritone sang not in his native Chinese, but instead had transformed himself into Figaro, the male lead from the Rossini classic, The Barber of Seville.

Dou was joined by four other singers from the Opera di Firenze’s prestigious academy, including South Korean baritone Benjamin Cho and soprano Eunhee Kim, as the Accademia toured across Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai and Beijing.

For Dou, who moved to Italy three years ago to pursue his craft, this series of recitals was a welcome homecoming. “My dream is to be in both Asia and Europe – to live and sing in both places,” Dou said.

At 25, he has only been singing for eight years. At 17 he moved to the Ukraine. Four years later he returned to his native Shanghai where in addition to studying opera, he began learning Italian, with the hopes that he would someday move to Italy. That dream came true following a competition where he met Gianni Tangucci, the Accademia’s coordinator.

“To be able to study in Florence I’ve had to really change my mentality in how to sing, how to learn, move, perform,” Dou said. “I’ve had to study the language in order to understand how to communicate the opera I’m performing. I don’t speak English well, but learning Italian has been very important to me.”

Baritone Dou Qianming. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

With 80% of the world’s opera repertoire in Italian, Tangucci isn’t surprised that more and more Asian singers are looking to learn their craft in Italy. An increasing number of Asian singers are looking to the Academia, which helps prepare students for the passage into the professional world of opera.

“In recent years, we have had more interest from Asia because opera as a genre is growing outside of Europe,” Tangucci said. “For the past 10 years we have seen many Koreans studying in Asia and now we are seeing more and more Chinese singers.”

Out of the Accademia’s 13 students (selected from more than 500 initial applications), six of them come from Asia.

Cho decided to become an opera singer after injuries halted his first love – football. He  was 19 when he began to sing and after graduating from a conservatory in Seoul, he moved to Italy. Cho, who, like the others will soon graduate from the Accademia, is now looking to find full-time work as an opera singer.

Baritone Benjamin Cho. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

The 28-year-old has agents in both Europe and South Korea and has already begun performing, including in a production of La Bohème last year in Milan. “It’s not strange, but it’s not natural – it’s something special,” said Cho of being a Korean singing in Italian in Italy.

Cho first discovered music through his church, but turned to opera for the stories “about our lives, the stories that give an education.”

When he decided to pursue opera as a career, he had no doubt where he needed to be. “Opera was born in Italy,” Cho said simply.

Kim began singing when she was 12 and by the time she was 15 she knew she wanted to study opera. “I tried to sing pop music, but I didn’t like it,” Kim said. “I couldn’t express myself.”

The 30-year-old, too, knew she wanted to move to Italy to pursue her career and has lived there for five years. She admits that there have been difficulties, but she has also had the opportunity to succeed.

Soprano Eunhee Kim. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

“It wasn’t easy to be far from family, to live here alone, but I have found it good here,” Kim said. “Being an Asian singer of Italian opera isn’t necessarily easy, but the market for opera is not closed – they accept Asian singers. If you are good, they will take you. It’s about the voice, the way you know the language and the nuances.”

Tangucci agreed. “What always wins is a beautiful voice. We don’t make a distinction. It’s not about citizenship – music is universal.”

Dou Qianming performing with Manuel Amati and Eleonora Bellocci. Photo: Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino