Dec. 27, 2023

Out of Character: Sun-Ly Pierce


It’s a busy time at Houston Grand Opera. Just five days after the company closes its winter repertoire with the final performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Wortham Theater Center, HGO will present its 76th world premiere at the Asia Society Texas Center: Meilina Tsui and Melisa Tien’s The Big Swim (see page 30). 

There is just one artist performing in both productions: the captivating mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce, a recent alumna of the Butler Studio and the 2020 first-place winner of HGO’s annual Concert of Arias. Now based in Houston, she is winning praise for performances across the country—including from the New York Times, for her Bertarido in a recent production of Handel’s Rodelinda at Hudson Hall. 

Pierce’s back-to-back roles with HGO this winter are Suzuki in Madame Butterfly and Snake/Sheep in The Big Swim. Earlier this season, we were thrilled to catch her for a conversation about both roles and much more…

Opera Cues: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you start singing? Is this a lifelong love affair?

Sun-Ly Pierce: It was kind of an accident, really. I’m from Clinton, New York. I started playing piano and violin when I was about four or five, maybe. Later I was singing in my high school choir, and every now and then, I would get a solo and think, Oh, that’s fun. Eventually, I developed a wonderful relationship with my high school choir teacher, Jenna Wratten, who I am still very close with. She encouraged me to consider applying to music school. 

I got into the Eastman School of Music in Rochester for the music education program, but through my theory and history classes, I got been bitten by the opera bug. Just watching the different clips and performances, I thought, Whoa. This is like musical theater on steroids. I ended up switching to performance and finished my time at Eastman. And then I took a year off because I really wanted to make sure that this is what I wanted to do. I went to the Bard graduate vocal arts program… And then the Butler Studio ended up working out, and it’s tumbled forward ever since. And now I know. I don’t want to do anything else.

OC: You were a member of the Butler Studio during the pandemic. What was that like?  
SP: Everyone had different experiences in terms of the isolation and the various challenges of the pandemic. But for me personally, it just feels so lucky. It was perfect timing. Coming to the Studio and having that first year to just plow through repertoire, learn roles, take voice lessons, coach as much as I wanted, and still kind of be sequestered from the intensity of rehearsals and what that tech schedule can look like—that was great for me. We were able to gather in person—distanced and, of course, with masks. It was just amazing. I feel fortunate because that was a crucial time for me to incubate, and to prepare.

A lot of people may say, I’m going to retreat to the mountains and think about my artistry, and they have to take time off from their jobs to do that. But it was our jobs to do that, to get to sit down, and focus, and think about ourselves as young artists. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a time like that again. And my second year, in the mainstage season, was building an awareness of all of the different pieces that have to come together to create a fully-staged opera. And that dichotomy between the first and second year set me up for success professionally. 

Pierce as Jack in The Wreckers at HGO (2022). Photo credit: Michael Bishop

OC: What is your favorite HGO role so far?  
SP: Jack in The Wreckers, after I finished my time with the Studio. I loved that role. It was so, so fun. And the production itself was just incredible. It was a Herculean effort. I can’t even imagine, in terms of the production side, what it was like to put something of that magnitude together. But the cast and the music team were amazing, and Louisa Muller is one of the most incredible directors that I have ever worked with. She’s a true force of nature. The whole experience was so special, and so unique. 


OC: Let’s talk Madame Butterfly. How are you approaching your role in the opera?   
SP: People have a lot of feelings about this opera. My goal is to honor the tradition of the piece and the music, but also to honor and make a sincere and genuine effort to understand its history, and other people’s opinions about the work. As a half-Chinese woman playing a Japanese character, I think it’s my responsibility to be as sensitive and as sincere as possible when trying to do the proper research—of course, about the culture, but also the history and context of when the piece was written, and understanding the balance between the two. 
OC: These questions can be difficult to talk about.  
SP: But I think the goal is the conversation. The goal is the dialogue. The goal is kind of living in the mess of it—because it’s messy, and people are messy. People are more than their race. They’re more than their ethnicity, their background. And at the end of the day, what I hear most are just people wanting to be heard, people wanting to be seen. I think that the best you can do is create a platform for people to express themselves, to say how they feel, and be understood and listened to. 


OC: The production has an incredible cast.  
SP: I did Xerxes with Michael Sumuel this past spring, so I’m so excited to see him again, and to be in another production of Christopher Oram’s. I loved his design for The Wreckers. I don’t know Yongzhao, but I’m really excited to meet him as well, and, of course, Ailyn. And I really love working with Maestro Summers. So I’m looking forward to the production and also being engaged in the discussions that I’m sure will ensue from it. 


OC: And then, days after Butterfly closes, you’ll perform in The Big Swim.  
SP: Yes, and I haven’t been sent the music yet! However, I’ll be doing the orchestral workshop that’s happening in November. And again, on the topic of people—I’ve never worked with Mo Zhou, who is directing, and she’s wonderful. I know Eiki Isomura from doing some other workshops with him; and Meigui Zhang, Alice Chung, and I were in San Francisco together two summers ago for their production of The Dream of the Red Chamber. So I’m really excited about the piece. I love that it’s being spearheaded by an Asian creative team.  

OC: And since it’s a world premiere, you get to originate your role. 
SP: That’s one of my favorite things to do: something that isn’t weighted down with expectation and tradition. You can just put your fingerprint on it and say it’s yours, and you can be the one to set the precedent, which is exciting. 

OC: After graduating from the Butler Studio, you’ve stayed in Houston. What was behind that decision?  
SP: Minus the heat, I love pretty much everything about Houston. It’s such a great city. It’s really diverse. I love going to games; walking around Brazos Bend and the Arboretum; and the breweries—there’s great beer in Texas! I also love trying new restaurants—anything I can get my hands on. The Asian cuisine scene here is crazy. There’s great Vietnamese food. I just discovered a Korean barbecue place a few weeks ago. There’s great sushi, Indian food. I love Kiran’s; steakhouses, barbecue, West African food. I’ve enjoyed living here. I am a Houston convert.  

about the author
Catherine Matusow
Catherine Matusow is Director of Communications at Houston Grand Opera.