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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: From Taiwan, with a voice, a taste for adventure and humor, Part 2

Critic At Large

Yi-Lan Niu

Singer Yi-Lan Niu of the St. Norbert College faculty. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Flashback to my review of the “Festival di Musica Italiana” concert by the Civic Symphony of Green Bay on February 15, 2020, when COVID-19 was a distant concern:

Yi-Lan Niu arrived to cheers from students of St. Norbert College, where she teaches, and then filled the hall in one of the most famous of all arias from “La Bohéme.” Home-grown Scott Ramsay arrived like he meant business and grabbed hold of the drama of an aria from “Turandot.” The two returned later to share the stage and sing/enact portions of the story of “La Traviata,” always with flair in voice and characterizations.

Today’s story includes where Yi-Lan Niu’s Italian comes from.

Rehearsing with conductor Seong-Kyung Graham, left, and tenor Scott Ramsay, right. (Civic Symphony of Green Bay)

Yi-Lan Niu started in music with piano lessons. She was age 4, “when my mom decided I have to do something with my life.”

The humor is typical of Yi-Lan Niu, as the first half of this feature revealed.

“I never knew I could sing until I was in elementary school. One day my teacher said, ‘Hey, I think you should have a voice teacher.’ And my dad said, ‘A voice teacher? Why are we doing this?’ Keep in mind, my dad knows how to sing. So my mom said, ‘Okay, should we get her a teacher?’ And you know what, she did. She got me a teacher from a university. So I’ve been studying with professors since I was 14.”

That first teacher was taught, when she was in Italy, by the teacher of Luciano Pavarotti.

“So she had been using Pavarotti’s exercises on me.”

If this were a vaudeville show, right now you would be hearing, “Da da dum” of drums and a crash of symbols – CHSSSSSHHHHH!

“That’s why I’m thankful that my training is very solid. It’s because I always had a very good teacher to guide me through all my career. Altogether, I’ve had four voice teachers. Each one taught me different things so I could be the way I am.”

The way she is now is a performer, associate professor of music and director of the Opera Workshop Program at St. Norbert College.

Her bio includes:

***

++ Training: National Taipei University of Education, Taipei, Taiwan (music education, bachelor’s degree); Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York (vocal performance, master’s); University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin (vocal performance and opera production, doctorate).

++ Singing: Range includes Renaissance lute songs by John Dowland to the contemporary, minimalistic music of Steve Reich. Featured soloist with University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber Orchestra, Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College, Civic Symphony of Green Bay, St. Norbert College Chamber Singers and Wind Ensemble. Performances in such major works as “Gloria” by Antonio Vivaldi, “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel, “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff, “Lord Nelson Mass” by Joseph Haydn and “Magnificat” by John Rutter, with operatic roles including Clorinda in “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” Costanza in “La Griselda,” Serpina in “La Serva Padrona,” Sandman from “Hansel & Gretel,” Diane from “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Papagena in “The Magic Flute.”

++ Collaborations: Frequently with classical guitarist Christopher Cramer (adjunct assistant professor, St. Norbert College), with The Niu-Cramer Duo performing music written for voice and guitar in the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Singapore. Niu also premiered vocal pieces written for her, including “Requiem” by New York-based composer Alexander Nohai-Seaman and the contemporary song cycle “Yuan Songs” by Professor Chi-Wei Hui from Hong Kong.

The Niu-Cramer Duo

++ Projects as director of the Opera Workshop Program at St. Norbert College: Full productions “La Perichole,” “Hansel & Gretel,” “The Begger’s Opera” and “Sister Angelica” and scenes from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Rosenkavalier,” “Falstaff,” “La Cenerentola,” “La Fille du Régiment,” “Carmen” and “Telephone.”

***

Yi-Lan Niu grew up in a family of high expectations.

“Seriously, in my family, the college degree is the lowest degree in the family. LOWEST.”

Yi-Lan Niu’s mother is a teacher. Talk about high standards for her daughter:

“That includes memorizing the dictionary, memorizing the encyclopedia – so ridiculous – and write in a journal every single day when I was four. I couldn’t even hold a pencil. It didn’t matter.”

 Yi-Lan Niu was kept to a Schedule with a capital “S.”

“I was taking piano lessons on Friday. Wednesday and Saturday were my English lessons. Sunday was painting. Every single day, my mom would ask me to work and everything. On top of that, I went to school every day. I was the first child, right, so she had to try everything.”

Somehow, Yi-Lan Niu developed a sense of humor, as you will see as her tale continues.

“Voice lessons in Taiwan were very expensive. We’re talking 30 years ago. It was 50 to 80 dollars per hour. And that’s only voice. And I had to take piano lessons. And voice lessons and an English tutor – everything. And my mom doesn’t believe in group classes. So I had three, four tutors when I grew up. So I really enjoyed my undivided attention when it came to studying. (She laughs heartily).

“And now I’m doing that with my students because I know how beneficial it will be when we work one-on-one. And my students love it, too.

“So that was my start, with piano and also Western music. I studied my Italian when I was 14 years old.

“However, when I when I went to college, we had to choose a second minor. Then I chose zither. You probably know it as zither. (In the Far East), it’s called gu-qin. It’s a seven-string instrument created 3,000 years ago. Confucius played that. I actually own one in Green Bay, the one that my mom got me. That’s how I got the Chinese cultural influence – not at the beginning but later.

“Western music is a lot more outgoing at least when it comes to voice. So, you are trained to be a singer, to be a performer. You have to perform on stage like in a big concert hall. But with a zither, that’s more a salon music, like a guitar. You use it to meditate. You use it to heal. You use it to cure your sadness. So I was very blessed to receive both training from zither and singing because they gave me different outlets. Yep.”

Amid all this is in Yi-Lan Niu’s growing-up years is the political climate between Taiwan and China. Think of oil and water, then light a match.

“This is actually a really, really good topic because nobody knows what’s going on, and, guess what, including the people in China and Taiwan.

“The tension was always really, really high. Growing up, we all had military training because we had to defeat China, right? That’s what the school taught us. I knew how to use a rifle until I was 18. But I also knew I was pretty bad at it. But we always had military training. Twice a week, we always had to wear khaki, and we had to march. When we did training, we didn’t train with a real rifle, we trained with a wood rifle. But we did have a day when we went to a firing range with real military soldiers. Every year, we had to do that. That was in middle school and high school.

With younger sister Eva.

“When we were younger, in grade school, we had to learn had to hide. All our buildings are made out of concrete because were preparing that China will bomb us. With concrete, the damage wouldn’t be so bad. And, yeah, we all knew how to hide. If we were bombed, it would be very dusty. So we had a little cape and we all had to practice – either go outside or hide underneath our desk. And it has to be in five seconds. We time it. We practice. And after that, we have to stay under the chair or table for like two hours. I remember that. It was so horrible. For a 10-year-old kid, you just wanted to move. And you can’t make any sound. At the end, we started taking it easy, and we would play poker (she laughs). We didn’t take it seriously. And, of course, our poker cards are being confiscated because the teacher didn’t want us to play. So that’s how we grew up. It was very silly. I don’t think people are doing that now, but we had to do it when I was in first grade to sixth grade.”

Looking at the bigger picture:

“Because of the political issues, which are created by limited politicians for their benefit, they make these two places not get along a lot of time…

 “People ask, is Taiwan part of China? Yeah, culturally we are part of China. But economically, are we part of China? No, we are not because we are able to support ourself. But in the future, nobody knows because everybody depends on China so much because of their market. So are the Taiwanese people from China? Yes, they were some 300 years ago until now…

“The reason that people focus on our bad relationship so much is because of the Second World War. We have bad feelings because we feel like we got kicked out, especially my grandparents.”

***

SIDE TRIP 1: “I am Taiwanese, but my grandparents because of the Second World War were considered central intelligence. When Chiang Kai-shek lost the battle with the Chinese Communists, they were able to relocate to Taiwan. But if they didn’t leave, they would have died. There wouldn’t be me. So I’m kind of happy they got kicked out. In a way, you have to look at things in different angles because you are getting a perspective. And half of my family actually died. Because we got kicked out, we escaped. The family Niu – half of them got slaughtered because they thought my grandparents were traitors. They escaped. But we feel we got kicked out, right? (She laughs heartily). What?” 

***

“My grandpa was an accountant in the air force, and my grandma went to medical school. My other grandparents – one is a teacher and one is like a cargo engineer – and they’re all pretty educated. In a way, it really set us up.  Seriously, in my family, the college degree is the lowest degree in the family. LOWEST. And we always feel like one day we will have to go and study wherever, wherever that we wanted to go. The Asian culture is kind of conservative. It’s kind of important for us to have male in the families. But, guess what, we don’t have males in the Niu family. We don’t have a male. So my dad is, ‘Oh well, we don’t have a male…”  But my parents weren’t like that. They never valued male over female. So we were always able to receive whatever education we wanted.”

***

SIDE TRIP 2: “My mother and I were like hostage. Before he retired, my dad was an engineer for a defense system for Taiwan. His job was to design a defense system, or purchase weapons for the country. When he was a student, Taiwan sent him to MIT. My mom had to stay in Taiwan to make sure he brings back whatever he learns from the United States and MIT. So my dad had to come back. (In recent years) he opened up and said, ‘Oh, I was doing this and that.’ But back then, I remember when he was working for the military, he didn’t say anything. I remember he was under a lot of stress because he couldn’t say anything to anyone. Every year, he had to renew his will.“

***

Yi-Lan Niu came to the United States for: “The education. The opportunity. And the best school. I got into Eastman. The town is like whatever, but the school is really good…

“This is what I did. I went to like a cultural exchange center. There was a book. It has all the American colleges and graduate schools. Then I asked around. I want a top 10 music school because it’s not worth it for me to study music if it’s not the best. My college in Taiwan was really good, like No. 1 or 2. So I have to go to a No. 1 school. Nothing can scare me, right? So, okay, just give me the top 10. Okay, top 10 is Juilliard, right? And second is Eastman and third is Indiana Bloomington….

“By the way, I applied to 15 and I was accepted by seven…

“I chose Eastman. Oh boy, but do you know what, did they ever kick my butt. (She laughs). I had so much to learn… Those two years really opened my eyes… When you are in a very good school, when everybody is better than you are, then you realize what you have done in the past just meant nothing….

“It really broke down my attitude, which allowed me to rebuild again. I said, ‘You know what, now I realize I’m not good enough. I really have to study differently now. I just felt it was very important. The turning point is because I was being humiliated by so many great musicians. I’m like, oh boy.”

Yi-Lan Niu stayed in the United States.

“I still miss my parents and everything. It’s the opportunity. People complain about fine arts here. They always do, especially the Americans. They go like, ‘Ahh, nobody gives the arts anything.’ And whatever. But, you know what, the United States is such a good country. Every country has things to improve, of course, right? But compared with other countries, this is a very, very, very good country, and I receive the opportunities I would never be able to receive in Taiwan.

In concert with Civic Symphony of Green Bay. (Sophia Photography)

“And keep in mind because of my last name, Niu, which is really rare in Taiwan. Some people there called us traitors, and that just breaks my heart. I grew up in Taiwan, I am Taiwanese, but in my blood, my grandparents are from China. My parents are Taiwanese, but politically a lot of people will have trouble with us… Talk about discrimination, just because of my last name. But people here, it’s like people say, ‘Okay, you’re Asian.’ So what? Right? Things just sort of move along. It’s like you work hard; people always say American Dream, right? And I feel like my dream happened in the United States. I work hard, and I get what I want because I work hard. So I get the result. So it’s like a little seed. Like you have to put the seed in the right soil in order to grow. And sometimes I feel the United States, the U.S., has very good soil, at least for me to grow. I am in a very right place to grow.

“The people around me are very nice. The place that I work right now – this morning I was talking to my colleagues, it is awesome, because I’m the chair right now, right? Constantly, I’m reflecting. If they’re not good people to work with, my job would be awful. But as a matter of fact, I like my job. It’s because of them. It’s not because the job is good. It’s because the persons I work with are the best. Yeah. So that’s why I feel like the reason I stay is because I love the people here and I have opportunities here (her voice becomes emotional) and in Taiwan, I don’t know if I would receive those.”

A complex person.

More of Yi-Lan Niu’s philosophical nature comes in her answers to questions with which I started our recorder interview:

What did the coronavirus do to your calendar?

“We had to move our concerts to online. I wouldn’t say cancel because musicians – we find a way to do our job. We cannot perform in public, but it doesn’t mean we don’t perform. So basically, we just shifted everything online. That will give us a lot of opportunity to learn the technology. So it’s actually a blessing.”

What did the coronavirus do to your performance goals?

“Our goal was supposed to share our music with the audience, and we all feel live concert is the concert. Because of this virus, we realize that live concert is only one venue that we can use to share music with others. Because now we actually are exploring.

“I have already done it – last year, to have fun. It’s a 3-D concert. So 3-D concert means we put a 3-D video recorder in between the players on stage. It’s 360 degrees, and it’s up and down, so it covers everything. It’s actually really interesting. We get to explore. As an audience, if you enjoy the concert through the 3-D video, you are able to pay attention to all the players. If you want to study the piece, not only you can focus on, let’s say, this is a trio with a piano, a cello and a singer. So when manually turn the video around, the clip around, you can actually see everyone. You can study every single person playing instead of just watching them as a group. It is very, very educational.”

Two links to Yi-Lan Niu singing in 3-D with piano accompanist Elaine Moss are here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkJap4hNBV4… Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwmPTUrmc-0.

What did the coronavirus do to how you teach?

“At the beginning, it was a struggle because it really caught us off guard. The virus started to get really serious in March. We understood that for the rest of the spring semester we would be gone – everything would be online, no problem. But after the summer, things didn’t calm down as soon as we were expecting. It was a bumpy road in September. We wanted to see students, and the students wanted to come back.

“Unfortunately, not everyone has the full understanding of the virus. Well, nobody does. So, of course, you see some parents who tell their kids, ‘Oh, this is just a hoax, right? Don’t worry about wearing masks. No problem. We should be fine.’ And the other half of parents are, ‘Oh my gosh, what is going on? Are you safe to be on campus?’

“So we are facing the extremes during the first two weeks. Of course, some students are psychologically different, so they don’t want to wear masks because they can’t breathe. So we have accommodate things like that as well.

“I think the most important thing is to get everybody on the page to say, ‘Hey, you know what, this is what we will try. We don’t know how next week will go. Including us. Just keep reminding ourself, we have to be very flexible.’ And that was the hardest part because we are a creature of habits. But after three-four weeks, I think people started to get used to it.

“One thing the human is really good at is being creative. And now we’re not happy about wearing masks to class and we sort of got used to it and we found other ways to communicate. So I think that’s a really positive thing. Beside meeting in person, we find other ways to grow as a group and to improve.”

“We are meeting students in person but in a larger room. Social distancing is our No. 1 concern. Everyone has to wear a mask. 

“Half of our classes are going virtually. My diction class. We talk about your mouth, your facial capacity, how you place your tongue – things like that. Because of that class, we can’t really wear masks because everything happens in the mouth and we have to study. So that class is going online just because we can’t do anything. But with other stuff if we can meet students in person, we prefer to meet students in person.

“(For the future) I have to say I am very hopeful, and I really see the light at the end of a tunnel. At least we know what online teaching is. So let’s say if we have another outbreak, it won’t be this bad because we know what to do. I think the most important thing is we learn how to cope with this now. We can still do things. It might not be ideal but people will have an understanding and they won’t fight as much. We know what to do, and I think that’s the most important thing because we have the skill now.”

There is an old saying: Desperation is the mother of invention.

“Oh my gosh, that is so true because when things cannot get any worse and the only place you can go is to bounce back, right?”

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