Wei Wu came to the U.S. from China in 2007. Now he's got a Grammy.
Growing up in post-Cultural Revolution China, Wei Wu (MMus’13) might have been the only kid in Beijing listening to both Giuseppe Verdi and Miles Davis.
“My grandfather was a trumpeter in a jazz band in 1920s Shanghai,” said Wu, now a professional opera singer living in New York. “Even after most Western music in China was destroyed, he and my parents still had classical and jazz music around.”
From his earliest years, Wu, a bass, loved singing. He nurtured that love through choirs, voice lessons and undergraduate studies at People’s University of China. In 2007, legendary bass Hao Jiang Tian, his future mentor, offered him an opportunity he and his tight-knit family knew he ought to take — in Colorado.
“Chinese composer Guo Wenjing had written an opera specifically for my teacher, to be premiered at Central City Opera,” Wu said. “Tian brought me to the United States as his understudy.”
The move proved fortuitous: That summer, Wu met his future CU voice teacher, Julie Simson, and auditioned for graduate work at the College of Music. By fall, he was a master’s and voice performance certificate student.
A hop, skip and a couple of young artist programs later, Wu can call himself a Grammy Award winner.
In February, Wu and the cast of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” — an opera about the Apple co-founder written by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell (Thtr’75) — beat out five heavy-hitting contenders in the “Best Opera Recording” category. Wu played Jobs’ spiritual advisor, Japanese zen master Kôbun Chino Otogawa, in the opera’s 2017 world premiere in Santa Fe.
“We were never really expecting it,” said Wu, who landed the gig after graduating from Washington National Opera’s young artist program and a Metropolitan Opera debut. “A nomination is already quite an honor. Then we won.”
If other singers have to give 100 percent to be cast in an opera, we have to give 200 percent. I have 10 minutes in an audition to make them see past my face and see me as a singer first.
Bringing Otogawa’s story to the stage was an honor — but only a handful of people in the U.S. were likely to get the role, he said, and they’re all Asian.
“The people from China who are making it here as professional singers are all my best friends,” he said, “and I can count them on one hand.”
As in film and television, singers of Asian descent are often considered mainly for Asian roles, like Kôbun or the soprano in “Madame Butterfly.” That means there’s an added challenge when auditioning for parts like King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Wu’s dream role.
“My teacher told me that if other singers have to give 100 percent to be cast in an opera, we have to give 200 percent,” Wu said. “I have 10 minutes in an audition to make them see past my face and see me as a singer first.”
But Wu said he’s seeing more and more Asian singers coming to the U.S. to take advantage of growing opportunities in opera, and he views this as a good sign, cautiously.
“This is where the training and opportunities are,” he said. “But it is still very competitive.”
Wu said the language, diction and voice training he received at CU have made a big difference for him, along with encouragement from his parents and CU supporters John and Anna Sie.
“They always want me to keep working toward the next thing,” he said. “Even after I won the Grammy, two days later my father told me not to let the opportunity for this fresh start pass me by.”
Next year, Wu will reprise his “(R)evolution” role at San Francisco Opera, close to Steve Jobs’ old Silicon Valley stomping grounds.
Other CU alumni also fared well at the 2019 Grammys. Record producer Erica Brenner’s (Mus’82) album Songs of Orpheus, with chamber ensemble Apollo’s Fire and vocalist Karim Sulayman, won Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. Tia Fuller’s (MMus’00) Diamond Cut was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, and CU Director of Bands Donald McKinney was nominated as a producer in the Best Classical Compendium category for the Dallas Winds’ album John Williams at the Movies.
Where there’s great music, said College of Music Dean Robert Shay, there’s probably a Music Buff.
“All this recognition is an incredible honor,” he said, “but it’s no surprise to us!”
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Photo by Glenn Asakawa.