Posted : 2013-09-13 15:52
Updated : 2013-09-13 15:52

An unlikely Wagnerian

Youn Kwang-chul sings during a 2009 production of ‘Parsifal' at the Bayreuth Festival, a shirne to Wagner. /Courtesy of Bayreuth Festival

Leading bass Youn Kwang-chul to highlight 'Parsifal' premiere

The Korea National Opera has stayed away from Wagner for
the last 30 years. With ‘Parsifal,' the company will make his
work a regular part of its repertoire. / Korea Times file
By Do Je-hae

The overpowering music of Wagner's operas requires the most consummate singers in vocal technique, diction and acting. It also helps to be visual — tall, charismatic and European.

A diminutive Korean, Youn Kwang-chul may defy the image that many associate with Wagnerian heros. But the 48-year-old bass has become the most active Korean opera singer in Europe and the United States. His most famous role has been Gurnemanz, a grizzled knight of the Holy Grail in Wagner's last opera "Parsifal."

Local audiences will soon have a chance to see Youn's Gurnemanz in the Korean premiere of Parsifal next month at Seoul Arts Center by the Korea National Opera (KNO).The five-hour-long opera is in three acts, and is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival," the 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight and his quest for the Holy Grail.

"Gurnemanz is an elderly knight who is like a mentor to younger knights. He explains to them what they must do to overcome adversities they face. To properly convey my message, my primary focus is accurate diction," Youn said during a recent press conference in central Seoul.

"Italian operas focus on melodic lines. Wagner, on the other hand, places priority on orchestration," Youn added. "I'm happy that this important work is finally being introduced in Korea. Some audiences may think the work tedious and difficult to grasp. But I believe that the story and the religious aspects of it have a universal message."

If you are an opera singer and you're singing at the Berlin State Opera with Daniel Barenboim, you know you've made it. The first Korean to become a member of the top German opera house, Youn nevertheless remains relatively unknown in his homeland. His performing career has been based primarily in Europe since he joined the Berlin Opera in 1994.

Youn has made only intermittent appearances here as a recitalist. One reason he has lacked engagements here is that he is a bass singer. For basses, who sing in the lowest voice register among male opera singers, it is more difficult to attain fame compared to tenors and baritones. Operas that Koreans have favored, like the tragedies of Puccini's "La Boheme" or Verdi's "La Traviata," feature no significant bass roles.

Youn grew up with farming parents in North Chungcheong Province and until he went to high school, he had never heard classical music. In 1990, he stumbled upon recordings of the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff and decided to pursue a career in opera. He studied in Sofia, Bulgaria and Berlin and won the first prize at an international vocal competition founded by the great tenor and opera director Placido Domingo.

In 1993, he auditioned for maestro Barenboim, who at the time had just been appointed the director of the Berlin State Opera.

"He had a beautiful voice and great musical sensitivity but not anywhere near the kind of musical knowledge he has now," Barenboim said in a 2011 New York Times feature about the Korean bass. "His progress was very gradual, very evolutionary. At first he was very stiff onstage. In the meantime he has become a wonderful singer, musician and actor."

From 1994 through 2004, Youn stayed at the Berlin State Opera. He returned to Korea when Seoul National University recruited him to its voice department faculty. Since 2004, his freelance career blossomed into one of the most leading basses today.

He commands a huge repertoire and sings at the world's top opera houses in Berlin, New York, Paris and Milan. He also appears regularly at the most important opera festivals, like the Bayreuth Festival in Germany devoted to Wagner.

Introducing Wagner

Wagner's operas are hardly ever staged in Korea because of cost limitations and duration. While most operas run less than two hours, Parsifal runs four hours and 30 minutes. More than 350 musicians and singers will participate in the production set in a medieval castle in Spain.

The KNO's programming has centered mostly on well-known Italian operas, Mozart and some home-grown productions in recent years. Parsifal is its latest attempt to diversify its programs as the nation's first opera company since 1962. The last time the KNO staged a Wagnerian work was "Tannhauser" over 30 years ago in 1979.

"‘Parsifal' is the biggest challenge for us this year. The production will be a test of the artistic maturity of our company," KNO Executive Director Kim Eui-joon said.
The KNO plans to make Wagner a regular part of its repertoire starting next year with "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (The Ring of the Nibelung), a cycle of four epic operas.

Parsifal will be staged on Oct. 1, 3 and 5 starting at 4:00 p.m. Tickets cost 10,000-150,000 won. For more information, visit

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