Bass-baritone William Guanbo Su, 23 this month, discovered his voice by accident when he was in elementary school in Beijing. Like all the other schoolboys in his choir class, William sang soprano. But their teacher had a beautiful, deep bass voice; and so, wanting to emulate him, William suddenly started singing several registers lower. The teacher, thinking that William was making fun of him, threw him out of the class. The second time this happened, the teacher accused him of insolence and of singing too loud. William didn’t return to choir class.
Instead of upbraiding her son for disrespecting his teacher, William’s mother—whose own father had a deep bass singing voice that was never trained—set out to find him a voice teacher. A student at the Central Conservatory was willing to train the young boy, and the results were enough to get William admitted to a highly selective private middle school on a voice scholarship. While there, a teacher urged him to go to America if he was serious about singing Western classical music; her American husband helped William with all the necessary forms, documents, and applications. He was accepted on scholarship as a boarding student at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA, near Boston.
At the age of fourteen, William arrived alone in the United States. He knew no one and spoke no English. In addition to following a full curriculum of normal high school classes, he would have a full roster of music and voice lessons, and be coached by singers and teachers from Boston University and the New England Conservatory—a daunting prospect.
“But from the moment I arrived at the Walnut Hill School, my confidence started to build,” says William. “There was only one other Chinese student, so I had to learn English quickly, and of course all the courses were taught in English. I joined several choral groups and entered competitions, some of which I won. I desperately needed to earn money to pay my expenses, but because of visa restrictions, I couldn’t go the usual Chinese immigrant route, which was to work in a restaurant kitchen. I was only allowed to work at the school itself, so I got jobs in the computer lab and at the gym, which gave me a certain status.” During his senior year, he was featured on the NPR “From the Top” radio program, where he was praised for his “expressive sound, and the variety of his voice.”
By now that voice had deepened to a bass/baritone. He was accepted at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree last May. He spent the summer of 2016 in Vienna at the Franz Schubert Institute, studying German Lieder. “This was a life-changing experience. I learned how entwined the text and the music are. I was taught not to sing the words, but to speak the notes.” He often took long walks in the woods where Schubert and Mozart had also walked, listening to the bird songs, the river, and all the other nature sounds that had inspired them.
Now in his first year of Juilliard’s Master of Music program, William needs all the self-confidence he can muster. In addition to attending classes, auditioning, practicing, and performing, he is learning that a successful singing career depends on a lot more than just talent. “It’s the whole package: your look, your presentation, how well you understand the maestro or the director, and most of all, your relationship with people.”
Although he is not naturally extroverted—he avoids parties, especially at bars and discos where he knows no one—William has an easy way of talking, engaging and carrying himself. But his relaxed manner belies a steely personal discipline which has supported him throughout his young life. His only leisure activities, he says, are working out at the gym and cooking with his girlfriend. Otherwise, it’s work, work, work. “I learned that from my parents, especially my dad, who was a gold medalist on the Asian Olympic windsurfing team. I also did competitive swimming in China, but I gave that up when I started focusing on my voice. But when I was born, my father gave me the first name Guanbo. In China, names have meanings: guan means “champion” and bo means ‘fight for it.’ I’m not fighting to become a champion athlete—maybe a champion singer. But it’s too hard for Americans to pronounce right. So I came up with William. You can just call me that.”
Singing bass in The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will be William’s solo debut at Carnegie Hall, but he already knows the thrill of standing and singing on the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage: while a student at the Manhattan School of Music, he sang there as a member of Kent Tritle’s Oratorio Society. It was there that he heard about The Cecilia Chorus. “And now I’m singing solo with them—wow!”
Last month William received First Prize in the prestigious Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Vocal Competition as well as an Opera Index Encouragement Award.
BIOGRAPHY, WILLIAM GUANBO SU
At the age of 18, New York City based singer William Guanbo Su (1994) was featured on National Public Radio’s “From the Top” program, where he was praised for his “expressive sound, and the variety of (his) voice.”
Mr. Su has performed in solo recitals around Europe, Asia, and the United States. He’s operatic roles range from Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea to Janacek’s The Adventures of Vixen Sharp Ears. He has also concentrated on German Lieder at the Franz Schubert Institute in Vienna, where he was coached by Emmy Ameling, Olaf Bar, Helmut Deutsch, Robert Holl and others. He recently won first prize in the 2017 Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Vocal Competition, as well as an Opera Index Encouragement Award.
Born in Beijing, China, Mr. Su moved to the United States at the age of 14 to attend The Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick MA. He continued his voice studies at the Manhattan School of Music, graduating last May. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at Juilliard under the guidance of Cynthia Hoffmann.