Our first Vocal Arts student to be interviewed is Vivian Yau, a rising sophomore soprano student from Hong Kong. It was great learning more about her experiences in the United Kingdom and during her first year at Juilliard!
Who is your favorite composer and why?
I never know how to answer this question… I swear I change my mind every day. When I’m in a certain mood or certain things are happening in my life, I relate to different kinds of music. Today, I would say that Tchaikovsky is my favorite composer, because his music is always filled with such powerful harmonies and passionate themes, and it never fails to take my breath away. Also, “Eugene Onegin” is one of my all time favorite operas.
You are originally from Hong Kong but spent a few years in the United Kingdom—what are the differences between the US and UK? What about Hong Kong?
My boarding school in the UK was about 3 hours away from London, in the countryside. Having grown up in Hong Kong, a busy city just like NYC, I had a hard time adjusting at first to boring small town life with gloomy weather. I soon learned to appreciate the Harry-Potter-like campus though, and the rich history and tradition that surrounded me. The English people were very open about alcohol consumption. The school often organized beer nights where students over 16 were encouraged to socialize with a drink in hand. That’s why I was so surprised when I got to the US that the over-21 rule was actually real and enforced strictly. Adjusting to NYC wasn’t hard for me, I had lived in a big city before, and everything was suddenly convenient again after living in a small town for years. (Shops are open after 4pm?!) NYC is also a very culturally diverse city, so I haven’t for a second felt like an outsider! I’m glad to have 3 cities I can call home!
Why did you decide to study in the UK?
I really didn’t have another choice. I was 15 and studying in a traditional academic-based secondary school in Hong Kong. I already had my heart set on going after a musical career, yet my school could not provide me with academic music classes. I knew some conservatoires required academic music qualifications, so I talked to my parents, and they decided to send me to a music-based boarding school in the UK.
What are the challenges of being an international student that your US friends don’t have to deal with?
Where do I even begin. Language. Food. Jetlag. Racism. Currency. Long distance friendships and relationships. Not knowing where to call “home”. Having to call your mother in the middle of the night because of the time difference. Always finding out you left something behind on the other side of the globe. The list goes on and on…
What is your favorite trivia (food, cultural aspect, whatever!) about Hong Kong that most people don’t know?
I love Hong Kong street food. They are cheap, addictive, and smell so nice when you walk past the little food stalls. They may look and sound peculiar to foreigners though – Stinky Tofu, Pig Intestines, Beef Stomach – weird, right? My personal favorite would have to be the Curry Fish Balls. They are not what you think they are. They are little balls of flour and fish deep fried to a golden color, dipped into a spicy aromatic curry sauce, and served on a thin bamboo stick. I have severe cravings for fish balls during the semester, and because they don’t sell them in Chinatown, I eat WAY too much every time I’m back in Hong Kong.
What made you decide to come to Juilliard even though there are a couple of very prestigious music conservatories in the U.K.?
It was the most difficult thing to choose between the music conservatoires. I had to think about money, teachers, friends, which city I liked better, etc etc… I remember that day when I was just sitting there and thinking: “What do I really want to achieve in the next four years?” The answer was simple: Good singing technique. So I went ahead and decided to come to Juilliard where I could study with Ms. Bers, who I had a consultation with and absolutely loved. I still think this is the best decision I have ever made.
In April 2015 you were Le nozze di Figaro–tell me about your very first full production opera experience at Juilliard. Was it challenging? Was it fun? Did you learn anything from that experience?
Not only was that my first opera at Juilliard, it was my first opera ever, and I could not have asked for a better production to be my “premiere”. Of course I was only in the chorus, but getting to watch the amazing older singers work with the superb conductor and director, and everyone else on the production team, taught me so much about being an artist. When you’re in the audience, you enjoy a great show for 3 hours, you don’t always realize the weeks of endless painful rehearsals, months of detailed planning, and years of training which these artists have sacrificed for the show. The main cast may be less than 10 people, but a hundred people could have been behind the scenes, working their best to make it a good production.
Please share a funny or interesting story about your time in the U.S. (a language misunderstanding, something you found strange or unusual in the U.S., etc.):
When I first moved to the US from the UK, I was still speaking with an English accent. I was amazed to see how excited Americans became when they heard me speak, or rather, how obsessed they were with the British culture. Every time I revealed that I have lived in the UK, they would become very interested. Much more interested than they were when they only knew that I was from Hong Kong. I guess I still find this strange because it still happens sometimes, when I accidentally say a word in a British way, like “I cAAn’t”. I’ve learned to talk in an American way though, so I can have proper conversations with people without having to talk about my English adventures. I now switch between accents as I like.
What is the most common misconception about Hong Kong?
That Hong Kong is “just another city in China” – it’s not! Well, it is, technically. But Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, and by being under a completely different political system than China, Hong Kong enjoys much more freedom, and is probably the most international city in Asia. We also speak a different dialect in Hong Kong. The two official languages are English, and Cantonese, which is different from Mandarin, the dialect commonly used in China.
What advice do you have for other international students?
Embrace your differences, they make you special and stand out from the crowd! Always have an open heart. You have experienced different things in your life than American students have in theirs, so be willing to share and be willing to learn. Don’t change yourself to fit in, but also don’t resist growth! It’s all about finding that balance. 🙂
Who inspires you?
I like to think that I find inspiration in everyone. I think that everyone holds onto a belief, a certain way they like to look at life, and everyone has something that matters to them, no matter who they are. I try to look for these things in people when I meet them, they are very different for everybody, and that is what inspires me.