Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans across society and advance the betterment of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2014. The staff of Committee of 100 sits down with one of our Next Generation Leaders each month and asks them about their careers, their passions in life and the challenges (and opportunities) for the AAPI community.
This month, we spoke with Juliet Petrus, Soprano, Author, and Educator.
Juliet is a freelance classical singer singing everything from musical theater to opera. Since 2014, she has been a specialist in Chinese art song both as a performer and teacher. Prior to the pandemic, she spent about half of her year performing and teaching in Mainland China. Now in 2023, she is slowly seeing that schedule return to normal. In addition to performing, she is passionate about working with students of all ages and levels who are committed to their vocal education. She especially loves introducing singers to singing in Mandarin and the beautiful repertoire that exists; conversely, she also loves working with Mandarin-speaking singers who are preparing to study voice abroad. She looks at those two groups of singers, their process of learning, and her process of teaching as the subject of her PhD at the Royal College of Music in London, where she’s currently enrolled.
She’s recently sung with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lincoln Center, at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, in China on CCTV for 《经典咏流传》a program promoting classical Chinese poetry and music, with the Chongqing Festival Orchestra, as well as solo concerts across China. She also premiered the new musical ‘Shanghai Sonatas’ at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. In opera, she’s appeared with the Hamburg Kammeroper in Germany, Baden Staatsoper in Austria, Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, with Detroit Opera Theater. She is the first Western artist to record an album of Chinese art song ‘A Great Distance,’ with pianist, Lydia Qiu (MSR Classics, 2015). Her book with Katherine Chu, Singing in Mandarin: A Guide to Chinese Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire (Rowman and Littlefield, 2020) is the first book to analyze and codify Mandarin for classical singing, as well as to introduce the repertoire to performers and teachers outside of Mainland China.
Connect with Juliet on LinkedIn here.
Committee of 100: What are some of the challenges you have encountered to becoming successful in your respective field?
Juliet: The performing arts is historically an incredibly competitive field — classical singing, opera, and musical theatre certainly fit that. The path for young singers has changed dramatically in the 20 years that I have been working professionally. The jobs for young singers have decreased and at the same time the number of talented and motivated singers has increased. Coming out of graduate school at Northwestern University, a singer would get into a young artist program (a training program for young opera singers with opera companies), where they would hopefully meet a benefactor who helps them financially to continue their training and fly around the world auditioning. Then, maybe they would head to Germany to look for an annual contract, one of the few places in the world which has governmental funding of their opera companies and can provide the most stable type of life for an opera singer and family. A family was something that I also truly desired in my personal life. I did my young artist programs, but then quickly realized that the latter part of that prescribed narrative was unrealistic and not viable in the early 2000s. On top of that, I was learning very quickly that being a soprano meant not as many jobs, due to the number of other talented sopranos, and lower-paid contracts than many of my male colleagues as well. For me, I came from a background as an instrumentalist, and I love challenging myself with all types of music. As a result, I was a generalist for many years singing and playing all types of music in all types of settings. It wasn’t until 2011 and my first trip to Beijing that I had exposure to Chinese music, language and culture and my passion for it completely consumed me. It was the first time that I really saw the power of music to transcend cultural boundaries. I knew that to find an honest and deeply connected interpretation of the music, I would need to devote time and effort to the study of the language and the culture. That has been the last decade of my life, the coming and going between the East and West, which has been the most fulfilling to me artistically, but it comes at the price of time away from my family. It’s a delicate balance, particularly as a woman in this field, and I am fortunate to have a partner and family around me who understand and support me.
Committee of 100: There are more than 6 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?
Juliet: As an ally of the Chinese American and AAPI community, I feel very fortunate to have been invited to be a member of the C100 NGL From it, I am learning so much about how the Chinese American community feels about representation. While I’ve been familiar with the idea of the ‘Glass Ceiling’ affecting women for many years, I have only recently learned of the idea of the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ affecting Asian Americans. It helps that one of my fellow NGL members, Jackson Lu, is one of the leading researchers — if not the leading researcher — on the Bamboo Ceiling and East Asians in leadership positions in the U.S. Everything that I am learning indicates that Chinese Americans feel that they are underrepresented. In my own sector of classical music, I have no official research, but I can look to conversations between myself and my Chinese American and Asian American colleagues. What I hear is that they feel marginalized, and they feel pigeonholed into certain types of roles. Women often feel fetishized. Men feel as if they are not ‘masculine enough’ for a Western standard. All of them feel as if they must work exponentially harder than their white colleagues to succeed.
Committee of 100: What do you believe needs to be done so that more Chinese Americans feel empowered to follow their dreams and push forward to create the programs/businesses/position they want?
Juliet: I think it’s very easy to suggest that ‘if you just do ______, you can achieve _______,’ putting the onus on the individual to change or strive harder, when, in reality, the work that needs to be done is on the world in which they live. They need to feel the support of their academic institutions, their teachers, their families, friends, and places of worship. They need to feel as if their experiences are validated and not dismissed. They need to see themselves represented in all walks of life, in the faces we see, the stories we hear. There needs to be more education from a young age about the achievements and contributions of the Chinese American and AAPI community in American society. I see a lot of that coming from the arts. There is space in the arts for everyone, for everyone’s story.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Juliet: I’ve been a student of the classical performing arts since the age of 3: I was first a dancer, then a pianist, a viola player, and finally a classical singer. But, it was my first trip to Europe at the age of 13 with a youth choir that opened my eyes to how other people lived, different cultures and different languages. It made me curious about the world beyond the small borders in which I grew up. It was from that experience that I learned I had a talent for foreign languages, and from that I understood the importance of being able to communicate with someone in their own language. Not only does it build an important trust between you and the other person, but it allows you to truly step into someone else’s world. Today I am fluent in five languages: my native English, Italian, German, French, and Mandarin. In a way, I think my career choice of singing in foreign languages was just to feed my language fix! Music has been my passport to the world, and I am grateful that it brought me to my second home, China.
Committee of 100: For those who just recently graduated college, what advice would you give to them?
Juliet: Define what success is to you. Many people — from friends to well-intentioned family members, from teachers to perfect strangers — will try to impress their own definition. But you are truly the only person who knows your own definition of success. Maybe it’s your impact on the world. Maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s happiness. Maybe it’s something I can’t even dream of. Own that definition and figure out how everything you do guides you to that goal. And, if a time comes to admit that that is no longer your goal, don’t be afraid to move on. We are, and are allowed to be, ever evolving.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Juliet: I hope that classical performers all over the world are performing songs in Mandarin and music by Chinese and Chinese American composers. I hope that the work that I do can finally make people understand the importance of the arts within our global conversation.