Richard Tang Yuk, the founder and artistic director of the Princeton Festival, has never said to himself, “I’m just dying for the weekend” or dreaded going to work on Monday morning.
“I have not experienced that because I have such a passion for music that it doesn’t seem like work—it’s just something I love.”
In addition to his role at the Princeton Festival, a yearly June event that showcases different types of performing arts, Tang Yuk is also on the faculty at Westminster Conservatory and served as the director of choral music for Princeton University for several years.
This year’s Princeton Festival will be held between June 7 and June 29 at a variety of locations throughout town.
New to this year’s festival is a performance of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” by Paper Moon Puppet Theater at Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street.
For the full schedule of events, see the calendar listings on page 21.
Tang Yuk, 50, was born to Chinese parents on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. He started taking piano lessons at age five and he knew that he wanted to be a professional musician by the time he was 10.
He said that being a professional musician was an unlikely choice for someone who grew up on a small Caribbean island, an environment that provided limited exposure to classical music. It was also a choice that bewildered his father.
“For a long time he didn’t understand why I wanted to pursue something so difficult and competitive and where I was not likely to make much money,” said Tang Yuk. “Being a businessman, he measures how successful people are in terms of making money.”
In contrast, he said that he and other artists “get such a pleasure from making art—it’s such a part of who we are as a person—that we cannot imagine doing something different.”
In order to pursue his dream Tang Yuk came to the United States where he studied choral conducting at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan and earned a graduate degree in general conducting at Indiana University Bloomington.
Tang Yuk first became interested in conducting as a teenager and singing in a choir. Although he didn’t know what he was doing, he experimented with conducting the choir and gained experience giving concerts.
When he arrived as Mannes, he realized that he already had world experiences that his teachers were talking about and that he wanted to study conducting formally.
After Tang Yuk moved to Princeton to work for the university, he also worked at the Opera Festival of New Jersey for about 10 years in different capacities including chorus master, associate director and assistant artistic director.
When the Opera Festival of New Jersey went bankrupt in fall 2003, a board member approached Tang Yuk about starting a company to run a new festival that would not only produce operas, but would have a program that would encompass genres such as chamber music, jazz, piano, musical theatre and dance. That new company became the Princeton Festival and it held its first season in 2005.
Tang Yuk said that focusing on a wider variety of genres allowed the Princeton Festival to reach a more diverse audience.
“As much as I love opera and several members of the board love opera, we have to recognize that it appeals to a very small minority of the community,” he said. “It is often seen as an elitist art form. Opera scares people away.”
Having a festival that includes a variety of genres, however, is more challenging and as the festival grows, preparing for it becomes a more demanding task.
During the festival’s first season, there were two events at one venue. This year, there are 12 events at 10 venues. The festival also requires more support staff, more performers and more work.
As the general director of the festival, Tang Yuk is responsible for much of that work. He manages the entire operation, makes decisions about programming and hires artists to perform.
He must take several factors into account while planning the programming, including financial and legal concerns and how many roles need to be filled and how difficult those roles are.
Marcia Atcheson, another one of the festival’s founders, the marketing director, and the vice chair of the board, called Tang Yuk a “rare human being” for his deep understanding of both art and business and a “joy to work with.”
“To have a perceptive artistic director who is also ever vigilant about the people on the operations side and very careful about costs is indeed special,” she said.
Planning for the festival is a long process that starts years in advance. In fact, the program for the 2014 season was set by March 2013, which means that all discussion and planning had already happened even prior to that. Since the opera is such a major part of the festival, it is the first piece of the program to be chosen.
After the opera is selected, other events are built around it. Often all the events in a season fit into a theme, although Tang Yuk said that it is easier to find a theme some years than others. This year’s theme is new World: Voices of the Americas.
Tang Yuk said he has enjoyed every season of the Princeton Festival, but there are years that stick out in his mind as especially spectacular.
“Sometimes there is just such a wonderful synergy with a particular cast and staff that it becomes such a memorable performance,” he said.
Among his favorite performances were The Rake’s Progress in 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009 and Sweeney Todd in 2005.
One of Tang Yuk’s hopes for the Princeton Festival is that it will help people gain a greater appreciation of the arts.
Tang Yuk said, “When you go to a live performance, there’s something that touches your soul in a way that you don’t get in ordinary day-to-day life. I think it’s sort of food for the soul. It enriches the lives of a community to have a thriving arts scene.”
He said it is apparent that Princetonians already understand the value of the arts because the town supports such a large arts community that offers high-quality events throughout the year. However, he hopes that the festival will help expand people’s artistic tastes.
“I wish people would be a little more adventurous and try something they think they may not enjoy,” he said.
Tang Yuk recounted a conversation with someone who said that she was hesitant to attend an opera because she wouldn’t understand what was going on. She expressed surprise when he informed her that most opera houses today have supertitles projected over the stage.
“If people took a chance, they might be surprised,” he said.