The Last Word: Richard Tang Yuk
Opera and Orchids: From Piano Lessons in the Caribbean to the Princeton Festival
Interview by Nancy Plum
Richard Tang Yuk is General and Artistic Director of The Princeton Festival, which will be opening its 11th season in June. A native of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Tang Yuk is a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music (UK) and holds degrees in conducting from the Mannes College of Music and the Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music. From 1994- 2009, Dr. Tang Yuk was Director of Choral Music and Associate Director of the Program in Musical Performance at Princeton University, during which time he led the Princeton Glee Club on eight overseas concert tours, including appearances in Hong Kong, Brazil, Italy and Argentina. Dr. Tang Yuk was instrumental in the founding of The Princeton Festival, and is at the heart of its creative planning and vision. Since its inception he has overseen the expansion of the Festival to its current offerings of opera, musical theater, dance, chamber music, jazz, world music, a piano competition, baroque orchestra, a conducting workshop, and a lecture series.
What was your music education growing up in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago?
I started piano lessons at age seven and had a voracious appetite for learning new pieces. However in those days without the Internet, it was difficult to come by published scores on a Caribbean island. During my secondary school education, I was fortunate to have an outstanding music teacher who had been trained at the Royal College of Music, London. I credit her for being a big inspiration in my early music education. I also took theory and counterpoint R lessons with a British expatriate living in Trinidad who introduced me to the symphonies of Brahms and Sibelius, repertoire which I treasure so much today.
When did you decide to become a conductor?
I don’t know that I decided at a particular point in time. I do remember assembling my neighbors and friends at my home into a motley chorus when I was about fifteen. I knew nothing about conducting then, but making music together was fun. Before I had any formal training in conducting, I had formed a choir and conducted several concerts and musicals in Trinidad.
When did you first learn about opera?
When I was about eleven years old, I was one of the three spirits in a production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute]. I found opera to be so intriguing and caught the bug, as they say. From that point on I was eager to learn other operas. The next operas I encountered, through singing in the chorus, were Beethoven’s Fidelio, Bizet’s Carmen, and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. When I came to New York as a student, my world exploded with exposure to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera.
What is the best part of being a conductor?
Continuous learning. I love learning a new score, learning from the orchestra about the possibilities of expression, learning from the singers about different views on interpretation, learning about historical context and what it might have been like for audiences of that time, learning about gesture and how it profoundly affects what one hears in performance, and learning about leadership and how the dynamics of teamwork work in real time.
How did the Princeton Festival come to be?
A couple friends invited me to have lunch with them in January 2004 to discuss starting a new company after the demise of The Opera Festival of New Jersey, with which I had worked for 10 seasons. This began a series of conversations over the better part of a year, which resulted in a multi-genre summer performing arts festival. We incorporated as a non-profit in late 2004 with our first public performances given in June 2005 at the Kirby Arts Center at The Lawrenceville School.
I propose a season to the Board of Trustees, and then am responsible for implementing it, which means everything from auditions and casting of the opera and musical to hiring the artists for all the performance events, hiring the production team, and scheduling rehearsals. I’m also the General Director of the company, so I oversee a lot of the administrative side of things as well.
What do you listen for when you audition singers for the Festival?
Above all, I look for an ability to connect with the listener. Of course all the technical aspects have to be in place: pitch, rhythm, breath control, etc. But I am looking at a bigger picture—how confident is this artist, what stagecraft skills do they have, are they musical, and can they move me emotionally with their singing? Auditions last approximately ten minutes, but we can tell in thirty seconds or less whether a particular singer has this innate ability to connect with an audience.
What do you think about the current state of opera?
Statistics show that opera audiences are actually growing nationwide. There are now more opera companies in the United States than in any other country; however, there is always the challenge of balancing traditional repertoire with interesting lesser-performed works. Many productions of opera today try to create a new spin or interpretation on standard works, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so. The challenge is to make it relevant for today’s audiences while staying true to the composer and librettist’s intentions.
What is new this year for the Festival?
We have added country music, with the group Striking Matches, as well as Indian music and Kathak dance performed by the ensemble Pradhanica.
Who is your favorite composer and why?
I don’t know if any musician can cite one “favorite” composer. Different composers appeal to musicians in different ways, whether it is the craftsmanship and complexity of Bach, the simplicity and beauty of Mozart, the innovation of Stravinsky, the original idiom of Britten, or the mesmerizing impact of John Adams.
What is the best part of being back in Princeton?
Being close to the Festival and my network of friends and colleagues, knowing exactly in which aisle in the supermarket I can find something I need, and proximity to New York and all it has to offer.
Do you have any hobbies or interests your audience would be surprised to know?
I’m an avid horticulturist, more specifically, cultivating orchids. I find the evolution of certain species of orchids and their strategies for pollination and survival to be fascinating. Why does a particular species emit this scent? Why this shape and color of flower? Why 100,000 seeds from one single seedpod? And the considerations of each species’ natural environment: why does Dendrobium aggregatum not flower unless there is a dry spell lasting five months without a drop of water?
Dr. Tang Yuk and Princeton audiences will soon be able to enjoy both flowers and music as Princeton Festival heads into full bloom this summer.