Opera singer Michael Chu and I met in my kleingarten. It was the perfect day and the perfect place. The conversation flowed readily. We talked of music, art, healing, the great beyond, molecular biology; and, of course, love. After all, he has just written a song cycle called Never give up on love.
When Michael found himself in the elevator with the right guy at Oper Leipzig, he thought he’d take a shot and told him he had written a song cycle. As he continued his pitch, it took a while for him to realize the answer had been “yes.”
It’s very rare for a tenor in the opera choir to compose songs, and out of pure respect they deserved a listen. Once the songs were heard, it became clear they should be performed.
I asked what had moved Michael Chu to create. It was a dare.
Several years ago, he and a friend were watching Eurovision and commenting on how lame and what poor quality most of the entries were. Michael said, “I could write something better than that.” And the challenge began.
By the way, he agrees with me that this year’s winner, Toy, was a worthy song with an interesting score and good lyrics.
Admittedly, it was harder than he thought. He has been singing for Oper Leipzig for 25 years. Somehow that didn’t completely prepare him.
He started out as a theatre major and had written several plays. He found his way into the songs through the lyrics. First he had to learn composition. Then he had to learn to play the piano so he could tell if what he was writing was possible to play. Hands are not as flexible as voices.
So, what can we expect musically?
Michael loves show tunes, Disney, pop and jazz. Even if we don’t admit it, there’s a little Disney princess in all of us. I know I had a hard time not singing along when I went to see West Side Story.
I think it’s this accessibility that made the afternoon so pleasant. Although Michael has been happily married for 14 years, he hasn’t lost touch. He says he made the song cycle for tweens, but it inspires me. It’s no fairy tale. There’s no happily ever after, but it does end with hope.
That’s also what makes Michael so charming. He is just upbeat in general.
We talked about Leipzig and what it has meant to him. He came shortly after the wall came down. There was a frantic energy of growth and possibility.
Working at the Opera has given him lots of opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
One surprising one was when he performed in Beijing. Being a third generation Chinese immigrant and coming from California, the running joke was, “Chinatown never ends!” Since he’s been back, he’s zipped up his cooking.
While there, he found some new flavor combinations. Typical cooking in the States is Cantonese, but he got to try Northern Chinese cuisine. Ergo the new chilies that have found their way into dishes he has cooked all his life. He did mention that the Peking Duck was the best he’d ever had!
So, where does he suggest we go in Leipzig for Chinese? He says follow the tourists. If there are loads of Chinese tourists in a place, you know it’s authentic. His Leipzig fave is China’s Welt.
Having been trained in the west. he wasn’t sure how to judge the singing in Chinese Opera, but he was definitely impressed by the “sleeve work.”
Michael has also been influenced by the impressive musical legacy of Leipzig.
He’s not sure he would have started composing were he somewhere else. And, like many who follow their passions, he was a bit shy about sharing it.
He was pleasantly surprised how his work affected people at the World Premiere last May. So many people of different ages came up afterwards and told him how they had been touched. I guess I’m not the only perpetual tween.
The response was so overwhelming that he did a crowdfunder to create CDs of the live performance. There will be a repeat performance and record release on 23 June 2018.
It will feature Wally Giunta (a Disney princess if there ever was one), Jeffery Krueger (tenor from MuKo whom I have only heard good things about), and Alden Gatt (who normally rehearses the singers, so it’s exciting to get to hear him play).
I’m looking forward to hearing Michael decimate Eurovision next week at our Cocktail Open Mic. Shall I wear my tiara? The theme is “come as you are!”
Cocktail Open Mic Vol. 3
Come as You Are
Baileo, Fri 8 June, 8 PM-midnight
Featuring: songs from song cycle Never give up on love by Michael Chu
Never give up on love
Song Cycle by Michael Chu
Oper Leipzg, Sat 23 June, 3 PM
Performance and record release
Cover shot: Michael Chu, photo: maeshelle west-davies