Two days after his triumph as Scarpia in Annapolis Opera's "Tosca" last month, bass-baritone Sun Yu, 40, gave a recital of lieder and arias at Howard University, where his good friend and mentor, renowned baritone William Ray, 74, chairs the department of voice.
The enduring affection between former teacher and student was unmistakable. Their friendship is perhaps rooted in their similar experiences. Blessed with warm, resonant voices, they faced the same sorts of barriers when establishing their operatic careers. Both men crossed continents in search of opera careers.
In 1988, Yu arrived in Baltimore from Beijing, where in 1985 he had obtained a bachelor of music degree from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music.
Thirty-one years earlier, Ray had traveled from Cleveland to Vienna, Austria, in search of a wider range of roles in European opera houses. For 25 years, Ray, partly because of his facility with languages, had a highly successful career in Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere.
When the two singers met at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music in 1988, Ray, a voice professor, felt a kinship with this newcomer and was intrigued by the challenge of working with a student who spoke only his native Chinese.
Peabody director Robert Pierce knew Ray would be the ideal teacher for Yu, because Ray welcomed challenges and had patience and strong language skills. Pierce knew that with the right teacher, the Chinese bass-baritone would have a bright future. Ray saw the singer's potential and, although he knew no Chinese, accepted Yu as his student in voice and opera.
The two men shared a language in the music of their resonant voices and a bond forged from doors that were closed because of their ethnic backgrounds. Ray, who is African-American, knew from experience that those doors would open for Yu if he could acquire language skills.
Doors had opened for Ray many years earlier because of his voice and because he was fluent in several languages. Ray had gone to Europe after Benno Frank heard him in Puccini's one-act opera "Il Tabarro." Frank was convinced that Ray would be perfect as Balthazar in Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors."
Ray left a secure career in social work to take off with his wife for an uncertain operatic future in Europe.
The young baritone, who had obtained a degree in music at Oberlin College, had encountered problems in his country and assumed that obstacles awaited him in European opera.
Art of makeup
He knew that transformations could be created with makeup. Hadn't thousands of Caucasian sopranos transformed themselves into Japanese geishas?
Just as makeup could turn a white tenor into the brooding Moor in Verdi's "Otello," it could work to lighten skin color.
With makeup, Ray was not only consigned to Balthazar but also was accepted in many other roles. He debuted as Amonasro in "Aida" with Sir Georg Solti and quickly attained star status as a leading baritone with German opera houses in Munich, Kiel, Wuppertal, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Fluency in German, French and Italian led him to roles as a singer and actor on German and Austrian television.
When he returned to the United States, he had won several major awards.
In 1982, Ray became a member of the Peabody faculty, where he taught voice for 10 years. In 1992, he retired from Peabody and was immediately called by Howard University, where he is associate professor of voice and chairman of the voice department.
In the summer, Ray is on the voice faculty of the International Music Institute in Graz, Austria.
Career takes off
Under Ray's tutelage, Yu became proficient in Italian, German and French. In 1992, upon graduation from Peabody, Yu sang the role of Chou Hou at Kennedy Center in Washington Opera's premiere of "The Savage Land."
Subsequently, Yu appeared in major opera houses from Portugal to Norway, singing more than 20 leading roles.
His greatest challenge has been the title role in "Boris Godunov" at the Wurzburg Stadtstheater in 1997.
Late last summer, Ray asked Ronald J. Gretz, artistic director of the Annapolis Opera, to listen to Yu, knowing that the company was auditioning for "Tosca." Gretz listened and immediately hired Yu as Scarpia.
Perfect for the part
When Thea Lindauer, former Annapolis Opera president, had heard Yu, she, too, concluded that if "Tosca" was presented by the Annapolis Opera, Yu would make a fine Scarpia.
By the time the opera was presented, another president had succeeded Lindauer, but Anna Marie Darlington-Gilmour recognized that Yu was ideal for the part.
Ray has proved the ideal teacher for Yu, and wherever Yu's career takes him, his friend and mentor will be cheering him.