Shenyang is one of the most talked-about emerging stars in the opera world, but his musical beginnings were hardly auspicious. “When I was in elementary school I joined a kids’ singing competition, just for fun,” the bass-baritone, 25, says with a chuckle. “But I forgot the lyrics.”
He has fared better since then. One of his early admirers was soprano Renée Fleming, who first heard Shenyang sing two years ago at a master class in Shanghai. “His voice was mature for his age,” she recalls. “It took me infinitely longer to do half of what he could already do.”
After his voice dropped, Shenyang studied singing at a music high school in his native Tianjin, in eastern China. A stint at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music followed, and Shenyang was soon performing at vocal competitions in Europe. In 2007 he took the top prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest for his powerful renditions of arias by Rachmaninoff and Verdi.
His rich, even delivery had already won over Fleming, who opened doors for Shenyang in New York, where he has spent the past two years in development programs at the Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School. Though he’s a fan of Chinese opera, his sensual, resonant voice is better suited to the classical European repertoire.
No stranger to the New York stage—he first performed at the Met earlier this year—the burly six-foot- four Shenyang is bound to become a more familiar sight. In December he debuts with the New York Philharmonic, and in April he’ll sing for the first time at Carnegie Hall, in the title role of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. That hasn’t left much time for his other pursuits—practicing Chinese ink painting and collecting classical CDs (he owns more than 3,000). His musical scholarship, notes Fleming, is considerable. Shenyang likes to think of himself as “a music lover who works as an opera singer,” he says. “Music is like a fire: You should keep it burning all the time.”