The Chinese bass-baritone, Yi-Kwei Sze (pronounced "Yee-Kway Zee"), was the youngest child of a Shanghai business man. Sze attended an elementary school conducted by Presbyterian missionaries and there had his first contact with western music in the form of hymns and school songs. It was not until he was 17, however, that he began to study music, first as a violinist, soon afterwards as a singer. He was graduated with the highest honors from the National Conservatory of Music in Shanghai, where he studied with Benjamin Ing, a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music.
Still in Shanghai, Yi-Kwei Sze made his debut as bass soloist in Haydn's Seasons, followed by performances with the Shanghai Municipal Opera and the Russian Opera Company, excelling in such masterworks as Rigoletto, Tosca, Aida, etc. The war interrupted his brillant career, but in 1945 the 14th American Air force in Kun-Ming was so deeply impressed by Sze's voice and artistry, that he decided there and then to go to the USA.
In the USA, after finishing his studies with the famous bass Alexander Kipnis, Yi-Kwei Sze began a very successful career as a concert singer. His American debut in October 1947 at New York's Town Hall was a truly sensational musical event, resulting in the highest possible praise from the press. The concert at Town Hall, followed by a second, equally brilliant, concert in Carnegie Hall.
After this he engaged in extensive concert tours, first throughout the USA. Later he traveled almost every year to the European music centers in Holland, Germany, France, England and Italy, as well as Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Season after season he fulfilled impressive tours as a recitalist (frequently accompanied by that astonishing pianist Brooks Smith, long-time musical partner of Jasha Heifetz). He appeared as a soloist with the world's major orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic Orchestra - singing in at least six languages, in. As well as Lieder and oratorio, he also sang opera arias, in the concert hall as well as on recordings. Finally (in 1950 and 1951) he appeared on the opera stage in San Francisco, where he had the same success that he had already had as a recitalist. He was a guest at the opera houses of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Orleans, finally even at La Scala of Milan. He also appeared on the stages of London’s Royal Festival Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, and the New York City Opera. His most celebrated role was probably Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte.
Yi-Kwei Sze is the first singer to emerge from China who has successfully established a career in Western music under the most rigorous concert and operatic standarts in America, Europe and other parts of the world. He recorded for RCA, Mercury, Concert Hall Society, and IRAMAC of Holland. In less than a year he was awarded three coveted prizes for “best” recording: France’s Academie Nationale du Disque Lyrique (1966 and 1967), and the Dutch Edison Prize. For his excellent performances in the Philippines, Mr. Sze was named “Visiting Musician of the Year” in 1966 by the government of the Philippines. Without question, this Chinese artist possessed one of the most beautiful bass-baritone voices of his generation; the volume of his instrument was as imposing as his interpretive skills.
Yi-Kwei Sze was Professor of voice at Eastman School of Music from 1971 to 1980. He taught in China for several years before coming to the USA in 1947.