A Tale of Two Artists

Yi-Kwei Sze

Bass-baritone Yi-Kwei Sze is widely considered the first Chinese singer to launch an international career on the opera stage. 
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Ow-Wing Fook

Artist, activist, and freedom fighter, Ow-Wing Fook paved the way for Chinese American singers on the opera stage. 
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Learning that Extends Beyond
 Dream of the Red Chamber


This summer, San Francisco Opera has remounted the opera
Dream of the Red Chamber, a contemporary production based on a beloved, legendary Chinese novel. Composer Bright Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang have breathed new life into this classic piece of literature with an opulent production that explores star-crossed lovers and gives insight into the heritage of one of the world’s great civilizations. For audiences, there is beautiful music to be enjoyed and cultural understanding to be gained as well. This production comes on the heels of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories of Americans hailing from across the Asian continent and from the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

The United States observes Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. This celebration provides an opportunity to recognize the contributions, achievements, and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. Amid the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, these cultural opportunities allow for insight, recognition, and renewed alliances by those who would stand up against racism and cultural bigotry. Asian American history is filled with incredible stories of resilience, persistence, and determination. This virtual exhibition is an opportunity to learn, reflect and understand a part of Chinese American history everyone should be familiar with. This is a Tale of Two Artists; Yi-Kwei Sze and Ow-Wing Fook. Though very different in some ways, they each shared a love of opera and made historical and cultural contributions that should inspire everyone.

Yi-Kwei Sze was a product of Shanghai’s National Conservatory of Music, where he would excel in violin and voice. He would be among the first generation of Chinese-born artists to master Western classical opera. He would later immigrate to the U.S. in 1947 to join his family and pursue his music career. Though immensely talented, according to San Francisco Opera company founder and impresario Gaetano Merola, Sze confronted racism and colorism in America to become a celebrated music educator and bass-baritone – the first Asian American to perform with San Francisco Opera. Sze made his professional debut singing at Town Hall in New York City. He went on to have a successful career appearing on the concert stage and in operas around the world. 

The biography of Ow-Wing Fook is a lesser told story of what it meant to be an artist, an activist, and a freedom fighter over one hundred years ago. Ow-Wing predates Sze by about 23 years. Some believe his artistry and activism contributed to the Chinese Revolution and paved the way for Sze and many other Asian classical musicians who would come after him. Ow-Wing was an original historical figure with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Delta. Ow-Wing never performed for San Francisco Opera, but his story matters. Yi-Kwei Sze and Ow-Wing Fook have stories that should be told and achievements that ought to be named. As we take this opportunity to educate ourselves, let us not wait for a particular month or a theatrical production to celebrate the rich contribution of Chinese artists. This is a celebration of Chinese American history, of our shared culture. These stories are a part of the fabric of the story of America.

Dr. Charles Chip Mc Neal, Ph.D.

June 14, 2022

 

Our AAPI Advisory Group

Please see below for a list of the local community partners who serve on our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Advisory Group.

Learning Resources

The learning continues even after the performance. Here are some materials and resources we recommend.

Articles

There Are Two Asian-Americas, and One Is Invisible (New York Times)
What this Wave of Anti-Asian Violence Reveals about America (New York Times) 
Asian American and Pacific Islander History (history.com)

Videos

Asian Americans (PBS series) 
We Are Not A Stereotype (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center video series) 

AAPI Musicians and Composers

Intro to Music of Asian America (Music of Asian America Research Center)
A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America (Smithsonian)
Asian Composers Reflect on Careers in Western Classical Music (New York Times)

AAPI Culture and History Books for Young Children

Asian/Asian American Children’s Books (Lee & Low Books) 
Recommended Asian American Children's Literature by Dr. Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, Iowa State University 
APA Authors and Illustrators by Mia Wenjen, the Pragmatic Mom 
Don’t Yuck My Yum by Ashia Ray, Books for Littles 

AAPI History and culture For Young Adults 
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lai 
  • Year of the Rat by Grace Lin 
  • Journey for Justice: the Life of Larry Itliong by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta 
  • Escape to Gold Mountain Graphic Novel by David H.T. Wong 
  • They Called Us Enemy Graphic Novel by George Takei
  • A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata 
  • We Are Not Free by Traci Chee 
  • Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran 
  • We Should Never Meet by Aimee Phan 
  • The Boat Interactive Graphic Novel based on the story by Nam Le, Adaptation by Matt Huynh, Produced by SBS 
  • Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Lim, Yung 
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui 
  • A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America (For Young People Series) by Ronald Takaki 

Resources for Caretakers and Educators

Addressing Anti-Asian Bias (Learning for Justice) 
Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit (Grassroots Asians Rising) 
A Different Asian American Timeline (ChangeLab) 
Asian Americans in the People’s History of the United States (Zinn Education Project) 
Asian Americans K-12 Education Curriculum (Asian Americans Advancing Justice)