Stefano Chen is a Malaysian and professional opera tenor since the 1990s. While it is common that Malaysians could be fans of classical opera, having a Malaysian talent trained and ready to perform Western opera is quite unusual.
I first heard Stefano Chen sing at a live Masakini Theatre Company concert in 2018 entitled “Trio Sundal Malam.”
Through the adept guidance of music director, Susan Sarah John, it showcased the talents of tenor, Stefano with Andrew Lim Wei Siong on erhu and pipa and Loretta Tan on guzheng.
For the non-Chinese audience, the concert was an eye-opener into the world of traditional and classical Chinese music and its unique instruments.
Raewyn Gwilliam, who was one such audience member, remarked that “Stefano brought something modern to something very traditional and classical as well as being an outstanding international-class presence himself. And I had not heard those beautiful musical instruments before.”
Stefano’s training fundamentals came from the prestigious Beijing Central Conservatory of Music from 1996-2001 and the China National Opera House from 2001-2003. In this time, he was mentored by one of China’s best tenors in the 1980’s Western Opera scene, his vocal coach, Xinna Wang.
“Whenever we use the term “opera” we mean Western opera. If it is traditional Chinese Opera, then that is cited in Mandarin or if in English, it is called “traditional Chinese Opera.” In China, in the 1950s , Western opera was first brought to the stage with “La Traviata”, a full stage production, sung in Mandarin. “Madame Butterfly” was the second one.
During my time at the Conservatory, we also had “language studies” – meaning that we had to learn to sing in German, French, and of course, Italian from where the singing technique originated.”
Stefano’s journey into the hallowed halls of China’s Central Conservatory of Music and National Opera House began in Malaysia’s humble primary school in Selayang Baru, Kuala Lumpur.
He was only 12 when he was asked to sing in front of his class.
His obvious talent launched him to participate in a string of singing competitions, in which, he frequently represented his class and school.
These singing competitions were conducted by independent schools in the Chinese (Malaysian) community. The songs sung were Chinese classical songs popularized in the 1920s and 1930s before the beginning of the Communist era.
The Beijing Conservatory first opened as a university in the 1950s. At the time, Europe and the United States were considered the elite choices for world class vocal training, however, the Beijing Conservatory also rose to gain a top global reputation. Stefano was admitted to the institution, among the 2nd batch of students from outside China.
Stefano’s career path in opera was set in motion, thanks to a director from Stefano’s former high school.
The director had arranged for Stefano to sing before a visiting officer from the Beijing Conservatory. Soon after, the offer came from the renowned institution. Because he had the talent and the drive, the training itself was not the main challenge.
“It was not a scholarship,” Stefano clarifies, “I still had to pay my way. It was expensive. Also, the culture was different. I may be Chinese, but I am Malaysian Chinese. Beijing was very polluted and had those terribly cold winters.”
Stefano knew that to reach a stage of world-class excellence, he needed more.
“You need a teacher who understands and knows your voice. You can pick up the general studies and theory by yourself but ultimately it is your teacher, mentor, maestro who understands the quality of your voice that will get you to reach that level of excellence,” said Stefano.
Stefano, who has now acquired more than 25 years in the field, states that singing is not just about pitch, melody, or tempo.
“It is much more than that. It is about the different layers of presentation – the emotion, the diction, the articulation. The different muscles used. The proper technique required and the voice adjustment that is needed.”
Stefano also believes that it is crucial for a live performance to be just as good, if not better than the recording. He holds this to be true despite the fact that these days, sound engineers can create magic with pop singers, even if they are often dismal on the live stage.
“It’s important to listen to what you sing. Listen to your own voice again and again and again.”
Stefano added that it was, however, tricky to gauge one’s own singing while singing. He recalls that this was a point of contention he used to have with his vocal coach, Xinna Wang, who was one of the best tenors in the 1980s China opera scene.
“So there used to be a lot of debating, which was in fact a lot of fun. I also did discover that it is not possible to gauge the quality of your singing, while you were singing. So you had to do a lot of listening to your own recorded singing after.”
Whilst in China, Stefano became recognised as the first male vocalist to record and produce a one-of-a-kind- jazz album, “Bop Within”.
This non-classical piece on his musical repertoire gained rave reviews from the Chinese media in 2000.
In 2002, Stefano also assisted China’s television station, CCTV, to produce a promotional music album featuring Chinese and English songs for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Bidding campaign. His work provided the chance to guide popular singers such as Guoqing Sun, Baoling Sha, Fan Ye, and Rong Guo in diction for songs in English.
Before returning to Malaysia in 2008, he also produced and recorded an audiophile album named Guilty Pleasure and a Chinese New Age album entitled, Beijing, The Voices.
“Listen to all genres of music, even the ones you do not particularly like. It will teach you to learn and understand sound production,” said Stefano.
He also encourages budding singers and musicians to read more books of different varieties, not just music.
“It is important to have knowledge that goes beyond knowledge of music. Unfortunately, these days some music students don’t know even basic general knowledge. Many are not aware of Handel, or Bach or things outside of music, like art,” he laments.
Stefano knew that opera was a niche market, whether it be Western or traditional Chinese Opera.
In 2004, as a professional music producer, he worked with a Chinese record company to publish a music album called, A Mountain Hut in Autumn Dusk.
The album featured famous Tang and Song Dynasty poems, sung to the accompaniment of guzheng (Chinese zither) by Professor Yun Qu, renowned for her zither skills in the world of Chinese classical music.
Returning to Malaysia also brought a prestigious opportunity; in Dec 2010, Stefano was invited by YTL Group to perform at Starhill Gallery.
His performance in, “A Journey Through Time IV”, was cited as Asia’s most fabulous watch and jewelry showcase and endorsed for the 4th consecutive year by Tourism Malaysia.
Now, based in Kuala Lumpur, Stefano is a professional singer who works as a freelance vocal coach and music producer.
“It’s important to know how to choose before you choose (a niche) you want. Gathering experience and collecting skills will ultimately allow us to harness the power of versatility.”
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All images in this feature were supplied by Stefano Chen.