Last Word: Remembering celebrated opera singer Barbara Fei

On a cold night in January 1951, 19-year-old soprano Barbara Fei Ming-yi took the stage at Queen’s College in Hong Kong to perform two traditional folk songs from Shanxi, China – Embroidered Purse and Aunt Li – for her her first solo. Her father, who suffered from heart disease, obtained permission to leave the hospital and watch his daughter in concert. It would be the last time he ever saw her perform.

After her father’s passing, Fei rose to become one of Hong Kong’s most talented performers. She shared the beauty of Chinese folk music with audiences around the region and, in 1964, established the Allegro Singers, a choir group that still performs today.

“She had this standout quality,” recalls Rita Wong, Allegro Singers’ vice-chairman. “She was able to attract people as soon as she hit the stage.”

Born with it

Fei was born in Tianjin, China, on 8 July 1931, then moved to Shanghai with her family soon after. She was very close to her father, legendary film director Fei Mu, and often cited him as her greatest influence.

A key figure in Shanghai’s creative circle, Fei Mu was “the first person who encouraged me to study music,” wrote Fei in autobiography Singers and Songs. He played Bach, Mozart and Beethoven at home, and took Fei to concerts and operas. The two also made a pact that, one day, Fei would compose scores for her father’s films.

As  the oldest of seven children, Fei was described as headstrong by her family. But Allegro Singers Chairman Johnny Au Choi-kai remembers her as exceptionally caring: “She was your teacher, your friend, and sometimes even your parent.”

Fei’s talents were obvious from childhood. At age 4, she performed a song from a film her father had directed at a banquet dinner. “Not sure how I learned to sing it – I just blabbed it all day,” said Fei, according to The Story of Barbara Fei, a 2008 book she co-authored. It was an event that marked “the beginning of her musical career.”

She learned to play the piano at age 6, then began taking lessons from Chinese composer Ding Shande when she turned 14. In 1947, Fei’s father sent her to the Conservatory (now the Central Conservatory of Music), one of the top music schools in China, to cultivate her talent and independence. During the Chinese Civil War, Fei left Nanjing and returned to Shanghai where she studied French and, in May 1949, moved to Hong Kong with her family.

Once settled in Tsim Sha Tsui, the 17-year-old began singing classes with Chao Mei-pa, an acclaimed Brussels-trained baritone. With her musical career on the rise, Fei began performing at prestigious venues around the city.

But three years later, tragedy struck: Fei’s father passed away at 44. She “refused to continue singing” for several months, because she was “so devastated,” says Wong. Her uncle Fei Yi-ming – a director of Ta Kung Pao, the oldest active Chinese-language newspaper – encouraged her to sing again, writing Chao a cheque for a year’s worth of lessons.

Back on stage, Fei quickly gained acclaim for her passion and presence. Her personal life also bloomed: In 1952, she married financier James Coe, whom she met at a friend’s wedding. A few years after their marriage, the 25-year-old moved to France in 1956 to fulfill her father’s dream for her to study music there. “My father talked about sending me to Paris … because he always considered it the capital of culture,” she wrote.

She initially studied at the Conservatoire de Lyon, but soon connected with illustrious Austrian soprano Lotte Schöne, who was based in Paris, and started apprenticing under her the following year.

“Prior to France … I had been dubbed ‘The Queen of Chinese Folk Music,’” Fei wrote in The Story of Barbara Fei. “Madame Schöne thought I was too proud and taught me to approach art more seriously … and not to seek fame and fortune in a vain manner.”

Fei then enrolled at prestigious conservatory Schola Cantorum de Paris, where she continued to study singing. The soprano gave birth to a son in 1959 and graduated from the conservatory the following year, then performed with Schöne in Salzburg, Austria, before returning home where she took time off to give birth to her second son in December 1961. She started performing again four months later, starting with a concert at City Hall, which opened that year.

Bridging the divide

In the 1960s, Fei’s performances took her to the US, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand. She also held concerts in Taiwan, which was particularly challenging due to turbulent China–Taiwan relations.

But her music wasn’t about politics; Fei wanted to build bridges in the name of arts and culture. “I’m not there to sing anti-Communist music,” she would later tell her uncle, who was opposed to her performing in Taiwan. “I’m there to promote Chinese folk art. What’s wrong with that?”

Her debut concert in 1962 was warmly received despite the music’s origins. “Taiwan was very much against Chinese folk music at the time, especially songs from northern Shaanxi [in northwestern China] which was an ‘old Mao’ stronghold,” explains Fei in The Story of Barbara Fei, referring to Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. “Singing northern Shaanxi folk songs would mean promoting his revolutionary ideas.”

Fei continued to perform in both Taiwan and China because she believed it was important to share traditional Chinese music. She also facilitated meetings in Hong Kong between musicians from the two territories – something that “only Fei could have done” with her influence, says Au.

In with the old

In 1964, the soprano established the Allegro Singers to raise awareness about Chinese folk music in Hong Kong. “The atmosphere of British colonisation was strong, and not many knew about Chinese folk songs. People thought singing folk songs meant they were Communists,” she wrote in The Story of Barbara Fei.

Fei was professionally trained in bel canto, an Italian operatic singing style that emphasises breathing control. Yet her mastery of Chinese vocalisation and native dialects enabled her to guide the Allegro Singers to perform authentic folk music, true to its form.

“The majority of other people who sing Chinese folk songs would, unbelievably, use Western vocalisation,” explains The Story of Barbara Fei. According to the book, Chinese folk singers emit nasal sounds, whereas Western singing uses the diaphragm and vocal cords.

Throughout the next three decades, Fei continued to perform and conduct the Allegro Singers. She also held leadership positions in numerous organisations, including the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s Music Group and Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. The Hong Kong government awarded her Bronze and Silver Bauhinia Stars in 2001 and 2012, respectively, for her distinguished service to the community.

When Fei passed away in 2017, then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying praised her “longstanding commitment to promoting the development of music, culture and the arts,” and tributes poured in from entertainment industry veterans.

She left a musical legacy in Hong Kong and the 40-member Allegro Singers still performs regularly. “We can’t stop singing because Ms Fei is gone,” says Au. “We’ll always continue her philosophy – to sing a variety of songs and inspire young people.”