Young Hong Kong singer ready for next stage

Elizabeth Stewart, 11, beguiles audiences from Beijing to Borneo

Elizabeth Stewart sang at a packed Christmas charity concert at Hong Kong's St John's Cathedral on Dec. 5. (Photo by Terence Pang).

HONG KONG -- When the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, among China's top ensembles, stages its Christmas production on Saturday, it will feature an unlikely solo appearance from a bubbly 11-year-old soprano named Elizabeth Stewart.

Born in Hong Kong to a Vietnamese mother and British-born father, Stewart's first self-released album came out when she was 8. The same year, she appeared at the Beijing Music Festival, with China Daily newspaper hailing her as a rising star. At 9, she performed in the Hong Kong production of the London Palladium's "The Sound of Music."

Her third album, appropriately named "The Sound of an Angel," was recorded when she was 10. This eclectic collection of songs, ranging from a haunting Yunnanese folk number to works by Mozart, Puccini and Andrew Lloyd Webber, was released by the China Recording Association, a publishing vehicle for China's 55 leading orchestras which last year chose Stewart as one of only three recipients of its nationwide youth award.

Now, in her biggest career leap, Stewart is to perform with the Guangzhou Symphony, headed by musical director Yu Long. Stewart, who is equally comfortable singing classical and pop, will showpiece her versatility by performing "Ave Maria" followed by Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror." Musicians say it is highly unusual for a singer so young to perform with a leading orchestra.

Stewart, a student at Hong Kong's Island School, speaks English and Mandarin, but sings in seven other languages, too: German, Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, Vietnamese and even Welsh. At 140 centimeters tall, she's a tiny figure with a big stage persona.

Down to earth

On a recent evening in Hong Kong, that persona was clearly apparent when Stewart performed a moving rendition of "Ave Maria" at a packed charity concert at St. John's Cathedral.

"She was truly magnificent, a special experience in my life," said James Thompson, founder of moving company Crown Worldwide Group and a music lover who chairs the board of the Asian Youth Orchestra. "What a treat it was to meet her," he said. "She seemed so normal."

Just how normal comes across in an interview at Stewart's family home in Hong Kong's Mid-Levels neighborhood. Her father, Rob, 56, and mother Ha, 46, appear to be the antithesis of the demanding tiger parent stereotype. "We don't push and have chosen teachers who don't push," said Ha, who has a background in finance but now spends much of her time managing Elizabeth's career. Rob is with Swiss bank UBS, which has been involved in sponsoring the Beijing Music Festival.

For her part, Elizabeth is self-deprecating about her rapid rise. "When I grow up, I want to be a train driver," she joked. A clue to how high she may actually be aiming comes when she says she admires pop stars such as Mariah Carey, Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. She also pays close attention to the career of Charlotte Church, the Welsh singer who rose to prominence at age 12.

The family became aware of Elizabeth's talent by accident. One evening in her room when she was 6, she was listening on her iPad to Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria from the opera "The Magic Flute" and started to sing along. Astonished, her parents burst into the room to listen more closely. The song remains one of Stewart's favorites. She sings it in German on her latest album.

Stewart does not suffer unduly from stage fright, saying she is more nervous performing for small groups where she can see individual faces, rather than for larger audiences where personal features are blurred beyond the spotlights. When she performs, her younger brother, Robert, 5, is ever-present backstage. "He helps to calm me," said Stewart.

Her fame has spread beyond China's concert halls to more remote and less formal venues. This year, she became the youngest headliner at the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival in Malaysia where she shared top billing with Bobby Taylor, the former Motown singer credited with discovering Michael Jackson. Stewart performed immediately before Taylor, then came back on stage at midnight to close the show, backed by a local youth choir.

Center stage

When she sings at classical concerts, Stewart usually appears formally dressed, with her hair in a ponytail. At Kota Kinabalu, she literally let her hair down, belting out the 1930s song "Goody Goody" as she pranced the boards, waist-length locks flowing freely. "It's like I lose my daughter every time she gets onto the stage," said her mother.

Su-Mei Thompson has a two-fold interest in Stewart's progress. As a director of Opera Hong Kong, she appreciates Stewart's singing voice. "Even when she was 8, you could tell she had a tremendous gift," Thompson said.

As chief executive of the Women's Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving female lives in Hong Kong, Thompson also sees Stewart as a role model. "Too many girls become unduly self-conscious on reaching adolescence, with six out of 10 choosing not to take part in activities because they don't want to draw attention to themselves," Thompson said. "Elizabeth's story is a wonderful antidote to all this. She's so incredibly down-to-earth, gentle, warm and unassuming despite her prodigious talent."

Still, the Stewart family is aware of the dangers facing child prodigies, particularly young singers, whose still-developing vocal chords may become damaged if over-stretched. One example of the Stewarts' caution: While Elizabeth could sing "Queen of the Night" in the highest register, reaching top C, she performs it two octaves lower.

That care appears to be paying off. "I am normally wary of child prodigy singers, but Elizabeth Stewart is really interesting," said Naomi Cooper, a musical director at the Australian Youth Choir, after listening to Stewart's latest recordings. "Her voice sounds very healthy and she does not appear to have been pushed."

All of which bodes well for Stewart's future. "I am sure the world will find her before too long," said James Thompson.