When I ask a routine question such as “do you do any sports to offset the physical and psychological strain of singing?” often the answer is walking, or doing yoga. Imagine my surprise when, for the first time ever, what I hear from soprano Elenora Hu is that she is a karate black belt holder – as is her entire family! 

Elenora Hu
© Bram Schilling

So how do you get from karate to opera? Living in Delft, the Dutch city most famous for its centuries-old tradition of blue and white porcelain decoration, her parents always listened to music – be it vintage rock, jazz or classical piano. When Hu was about six years old, her mother took her to a one-man show of the Magic Flute for Children. Listening to a CD of the opera thereafter, over and over, had an interesting effect: Hu started singing all the parts, in helter skelter order. “It was especially fun to sing the three ladies at the same time,” she tells me, laughing. A couple of years later came the first visit to a real opera. “Although we listened to a lot of classical music, we weren't familiar with opera so much,” she explains. “A touring company came to Delft with Lucia di Lammermoor, but neither my mother nor grandmother knew what it was about, so the appearance of a ghost and splattered blood was a surprise, and my mother asked me, after the first act: do you want to leave?” But she said no. “I was scared to bits, and I think I had my eyes shut and ears covered for a good part of it, but I found that the music that came through to me was so hypnotic and mesmerising that, even though I was terrified, I wanted to stay”.

Fast forward a few years, and her budding talent started being recognised in the children's choir, at church. And even though she first went to Leiden University and graduated with a degree in English language and culture – she is a Shakespeare fan – her love of singing did not die down. On the contrary: after graduation, Hu went on to study voice at the HKU Utrecht Conservatory, making her debut as the Countess in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro during the Mediterranean Opera Studio Festival in 2018. In 2019 she was a prize winner at the Grachtenfestival Conservatory Competition and the Royal Virginia Zeani Competition, while giving solo recitals throughout the Netherlands. She also participated in a Thomas Quasthoff masterclass at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the IVC Bel Canto Summerschool. And then Corona hit. However, this only slowed her down temporarily: together with soprano Roberta Alexander and pianist Gilbert den Broeder, she recorded a recital program entitled American Songs Remembered, for Dutch National Radio. Hu tells me that she loves doing recitals “where you pick a theme and then start exploring and welding a program together, presenting a pocket version of arias and Lieder on a much more intimate scale”.

“I did go through a complete low point in the summer of 2020,” she recalls, “when I was studying hours on end and practising every day in the attic of my home in Delft, with the windows closed so as not to disturb the neighbours. So I asked myself: why am I doing this? Where is the joy in this?” she muses. “It took me a while to find the spiritual connection again. Now I will never let it go. My love for music is like a fire within me that I am carrying up a mountain and I hope to reach the peak, but more importantly, it's about the journey and not letting the fire die out,” she concludes.

Her big break, however, came when she won the first prize in the unique talent show ARIA, a competition sponsored by the Dutch Omroep MAX television station. “At first I was skeptical, but then I saw that the Dutch National Opera was involved in it, so I thought it must be a serious proposition,” she says. “When I was admitted, I realised that the other ten singers were very good, recent music conservatory graduates, in the same position career-wise as I was. So we took off on this amazing adventure together!”

The concept of ARIA is a novel combination of opera talent show and competition. It is a series of eight episodes, with the candidates being put through their paces every week with challenging singing assignments. The remaining contestants then perform eight times with a full orchestra on a national television channel. “Each week we had individual coaching for the new repertoire, rehearsals with the orchestra and costume fittings for beautiful dresses”.

“The first few episodes were quite overwhelming: cameras everywhere, people buzzing about... it was quite a challenge to adapt quickly to these new surroundings,” recalls Hu. “Of course I didn't know whether I would make it to the next round or not, or if the judges would like me, so I just decided to be myself and give all of myself to the creative process and make the most of these amazing moments.” Then during the final show, seen by over 1.2 million viewers, Hu was chosen as the winner of a six-month residency at the Dutch National Opera Studio.

Since January 2022, Hu has therefore been a member of the Studio, a traineeship that offers a combination of workshops and professional experiences, and will continue there until the end of this season with “new coaches, new repertoire, all guns blazing! It's a incredibly gratifying experience meeting so many new musicians,” she enthuses, “especially at a time when there is so little else going on.” 

But the environment of the Dutch National Opera was not entirely new to her, because – in November 2021 – she had taken part  in the DNO world premiere of How Anansi freed the stories of the world, composed by Neo Muyanga with a libretto by Maarten van Hinte. The creators drew their inspiration from a story which originated in Ghana and then spread to the rest of West Africa, Suriname and the Caribbean. It tells of a mythical spider, Anansi, who sets out to free the world's captive stories from the claws of a sly tiger. This music theatre production is a playful symbiosis of different cultures, sounds and stories, and Muyanga’s colourful composition translates Western music styles and choreography and interweaves them with Afro-Caribbean percussion, beat and rap influences. For Hu, who played a Hornet, it involved simultaneous singing and dancing – not a skill that is very often put to use in opera. In this production, however, her having a black belt in karate helped her master her role.

Elenora Hu (second from right) and cast of How Anansi freed the stories of the world
© Michel Schnater
“What makes singing such a special musical instrument is that we cannot touch the voice,” she explains. “In karate we have a connection with the body, soft and hard, fast and slow, driven by the breath, and those principles and focus also apply to singing. We can touch the body and we can generate reactions from it, which in the end affect and influence the vocal chords, even if there is never a true physical experience, like when a finger presses a key.

“Singing is so much more abstract. Even when I hear myself singing, I can't touch it, it's an ephemeral art form. And then, when I hear my recorded singing, it's different again, because what I hear in my head is not what the listener hears. And that's why it's so important to find good teachers and coaches who listen with their minds' eye and can connect to what I hear and produce.

“As a young singer,” she concludes, “it's very valuable to get these different perspectives on what people on the outside perceive of you. The tricky bit is that I have to continue being my own person and my own artist, listening to four or five different opinions and then find the one that is best for me.”

“I especially love the starting process of a production, the first few meetings, often with strangers, getting to know them and what their ideas and associations are regarding particular phrases, the music, the libretto. For me it's almost a spiritual experience, moving through the different layers of a piece and finding connections to make them come together. And to bring that Gesamtkunstwerk to the audience – that's very special,” she laughs.

The audience will be able to hear Hu in a new DNO production of Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell at the end of this season, in the roles of the Second Woman and the First Witch. “I am looking forward to singing this early Baroque work and getting involved in the English literature of the time, which I love. It's not only about making pretty music, but also conveying the story.”

And the future? Hu lives in the moment, she tells me, trusting in herself, her skills and personality to master new challenges.


This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.

Find out more about Elenora Hu:

Facebook | Instagram | Youtube | DNO Studio Instagram