THE Chinese-born soprano Shu-Cheen Yu has a simple philosophy: "I treat every opportunity as an honour." This has held her life and career in good stead.
And what a life the girl from Shanxi province has had. It could be called a double existence, involving such different disciplines as Chinese and Western cultures, including opera, song, acrobatics and juggling, juxtaposed with property development. It could make an opera in itself.
This year is the 25th anniversary of Shu-Cheen's arrival in Australia. Next week, she marks the occasion with a gala concert. On the program will be Chinese art and folk songs, but also Handel, Mozart and J. S. Bach. And, no doubt, her party piece, a Sino-Austro rendition of Danny Boy. "It's so warm and sweet," she says, singing the refrain down the line in pure tones. "Although I learnt the English pronunciation of the words, I found my Chinese-opera training adds so much flavour and depth." Shu-Cheen compares her duality of cultures to painting. "Some people might learn to paint a Chinese watercolour, but then learn how to enhance this by Western oil painting. I have discovered how the voice, shade and power of operatic sound enable me to express more in Chinese music." Shu-Cheen is from a musical family, with an opera-singer mother and conductor father. At 13, she left home to learn Chinese opera at a boarding school. "It was like Farewell, My Concubine: one grew up very quickly," she says.
"It was concentrated training, with 250 poems and musical pieces to learn each semester, as well as dancing, acrobatics and gymnastics." By the time she came to Australia, Shu-Cheen was an accomplished singer. In Sydney, though, she effectively started again, at a three-year opera course at the conservatorium. From 1995 to 2002 she sang with Opera Australia. "I realised my humble, gracious salary was not enough to give me a comfortable retirement and I had to do something." So, during rehearsals, she read the Financial Review and property guides. Now the investment consultancy she began with her husband is successful enough for her to spend three-quarters of her time teaching or singing.
"Fortunately, I can practise my scales late: my good neighbours never complain."
Lotus Moon: Shu-Cheen Yu, Melbourne Recital Centre, Monday 7.30pm.