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Jin-Xiang Yu

College: Queens College
Awards: Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, 2014

Elite Opera Program Hers for a Song

Had it not been for a Queens College volleyball coach, Jin-Xiang Yu might not have trained as a soprano, won a 2014 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award - the first by a CUNY student - and secured admission to Yale School of Music’s elite opera performance program.

“I was playing in a volleyball tournament when a coach approached me and said, ‘If you want to go to college, come to Queens College,'” says Yu. (Her first name is pronounced gin-shahn, but her friends call her JX.)

Yu was then a freshman at Mercy College, studying communication disorders to retain her student visa. Having grown up in Japan with parents of Chinese and Russian background (her father plays the traditional erhu, a two-stringed violin, her mother jazz piano), she had previously earned a two-year certificate in musical theater at Manhattan’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy and spent a year singing and dancing in regional musical productions.

“I went back to school to hone my craft. I had never trained as a singer and felt uncomfortable singing in front of people. And I hated classical music, which I thought extremely pretentious,” she says. But at her first music class at Queens College, “I absolutely fell in love.”

She was “fortunate to have extremely supportive faculty members and mentors who guided me.” Lecturer Roy Nitzberg taught her first music history class, where her interest in classical music strengthened, and encouraged her to re-audition for the bachelor of music program in voice performance. He “kept pushing me. Knowing someone I respected saw potential in me made me work a lot harder.”

She also earned a B.A. in linguistics. She had grown up speaking Japanese and Chinese, attending English-speaking international pre-K-12 schools and studying Spanish from an early age. “Being around so many languages and cultures sparked my interest in languages. In opera I’ll sing French, Italian, German, Czech, Russian, even Polish. I want to promote obscure pieces or those written by good composers who were overshadowed by great composers.”

While at Queens, she captured a $7,000-a-year grant for people of Asian ancestry from the William Orr Dingwald Foundation. She also won a fellowship to study and sing art songs (poetry set to music) at the 2014 Toronto Summer Music Festival.

She applied for the Cooke Award at the suggestion of the college’s national fellowships adviser, Moira Egan. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation confers up to 20 awards annually to people who plan on careers as practicing artists; the award is worth up to $50,000 a year for three years of graduate study. The selection panel considers “artistic or creative merit, academic achievement, financial need and resilience.”

Meanwhile, Yu had applied to several graduate programs including Yale, which accepts eight singers a year on full scholarship. She says she planned on auditioning, but “had no idea there was going to be an interview, so I prepared nothing.”

When the opera department’s artistic director asked why she had gone to Queens College rather than a conservatory, “I said it’s really important for artists to have a general education, so you have knowledge of the world that can feed your expression … I’m 100 percent certain I was not the best technical singer at the audition because I was listening to everybody else, and I left thinking that I was definitely not getting in. Though my technique needed a lot of work, my desperation to express something meaningful and special must have resonated with the panel.”

As for volleyball, she played for a semester until sidelined by injury. “I would not have been able to do so much with music if I’d stayed with the team. Professor Nitzberg helped me decide to focus and not spread myself too thin.” Of course, she admits, pursuing a double major would spread a lot of people thin, “but linguistics fed into the diction and language courses that are required for singers. And I told myself that if I didn’t get into an opera program, I’d do a Ph.D. in linguistics, focusing my research on the marriage between language and music.”