Star on the rise
Petite soprano Kathleen Kim lures opera fans with big voice
By Kwaak Je-yup
You cannot help but be struck by her pint-sized figure when you first see the Korean-born American soprano Kathleen Kim. But her stage presence is everything but small.
She made her professional debut in 2007 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, arguably the operatic world’s most exclusive and important stage, and returned to shine as brightly as the industry’s biggest stars, receiving lengthy ovations at curtain calls.
Critics and fans have tipped her as a star in the making, and her bookings, extending four years ahead, already show its early signs.
Seeing her so effortless on stage can lead to one thinking that success must have come naturally for such a great talent, but only less than a decade ago, she was stuck — and felt unsure of herself.
“I used to go to the same practice room all the time. I practically lived there,” she said, referring to the years at the Ryan Opera Center in the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a professional artist development program only open to a handful every year. “I never felt I was getting things right. Those days, I guess, really paid off now.”
This may sound strange to those who knew her then, given that she was accepted under extraordinary circumstances. Though there was no opening for a voice of her register and type, a coloratura soprano, the jury members made an unprecedented decision to unseat a current member and give her place to Kim. It put an end to her series of unsuccessful auditions at Chicago as well as others in the United States, which started with her graduation from Manhattan School of Music.
“We accepted her quite simply because of her stunning talent,” said Gianna Rolandi, the center’s director. “From this tiny little lady came a huge and uniquely beautiful voice with excellent coloratura and thrilling high notes. We were thrilled to have her.”
But the admission to one of the most competitive young artists program upped the stakes and the level of stress for her. Most of the program’s participants were former winners at international competitions, as per usual. While they honed their craft in the leading roles, she was relegated to smallish roles, sometimes even just a single line in two- or three-hour works.
That she stayed out of the spotlight did not deter her enthusiasm. Those in her vicinity all agreed that her work ethic had no rival. She overcame her initial frustration to explore all roles that came her way. Kim joked that she spent so much time rehearsing that her colleagues even nicknamed her favorite practice room “the Kathleen room.”
“From the start of her time in our Ryan Opera Center program, Kathleen impressed everyone with her remarkable work ethic,” said Roger Pines, the Lyric’s dramaturg, in charge of research and development of operas. “She established a reputation backstage as being exceedingly conscientious and thorough in preparing herself for all aspects of any production in which she was involved — a professional to her fingertips.
“Initially her roles on stage were not large, but she made an impression in each one — for example, the Page in Rigoletto (by Verdi): she had exactly three lines, but she was adorable in the role.”
“I have never known anyone that worked so hard — she just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said Rolandi. She added that Kim, in a staging of Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete” (the Magic Flute), sang not only the famous Queen of the Night but also the page and “never missed a note.”
Then the opportunity of her lifetime came along. In the student matinees of “Die Fledermaus,” by Johann Strauss II, she played the maid Adele; unbeknownst to her, there was someone from the Met in the audience.
“This was her first major German role, for which she had to sing and speak dialogue,” said Pines.“It was a huge challenge, which she carried off spectacularly — her singing was flawless, her acting irresistible and very amusing.”
The Met official must have agreed: she was invited to audition in front of the Met’s casting directors, music director James Levine and general manager Peter Gelb and soon after made her debut as Barbarina in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
Once again it was a minor role, but she knew how to shine in them. Positive feedback from musicians and critics, as well as new engagements in Chicago, Boston and Lille in northern France, followed. She is due at the Glyndebourne Festival next month.
No one can predict how far her star will rise, but Kim seemed intent on enjoying her moment now. She returns to the Met at the end of this year in a brand new staging of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” in David Alden’s set and under the baton of Fabio Luisi. She will sing Oscar, a trouser role she sang previously at the Lyric to rave reviews. In 2007, her debut year, the Met had her fill in for only two nights, among the greats like Salvatore Licitra and Dmitry Hvorostovsky; now she will sing every night.
“In the costumes, there are names of the singers who wore them before you,” said Kim. “I saw (Korean singers) Jo Su-mi and Shin Young-ok in mine (in 2007), who I’ve looked up to as I was growing up.”
Then she added, with a smile: “In November, my name will be the first on the list.”