New York's Metropolitan Opera veteran Hong Hei-kyung speaks during a press conference in Seoul, Monday. / AP-Yonhap
How soprano Hong Hei-kyung lasted three decades at leading US opera house
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Opera singer Hong Hei-kyung, who has spent 30 years at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York, will celebrate her career in a solo recital at the Seoul Arts Center Concert Hall on June 12. The veteran opera singer is ready to share her music and experiences with Korean audiences as well as aspiring musical talent, accompanied by pianist Jonathan Kelly.
"The repertoire wraps up my 30 years at the Met. I will also try something new at this concert ― I will talk about why I chose each aria and why I accepted those roles in between songs. This is going to be more intimate and sharing my experience will help young vocalists maintain their career in the long term," Hong said at a press conference at Seoul Arts Center, Monday.
Hong went to the United States at 15 and attended the Juilliard School. She is the first Korean winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1982, but she was not hasty about her professional debut.
"I was offered the role of playing a prostitute in a modern opera 'Lulu.' But I thought it wasn't right for me and waited," Hong said.
Hong Hei-Kyung, as the tragic heroine Violetta, rehearses for Metropolitan Opera's 'La Traviata,' in New York. / AP-Yonhap
She was right about her decision and debuted two years later as Servilia in Mozart's opera "La clemenza di Tito" in 1984. "I still remember the day I debuted at the Met. It was one of the most important days of my life," she said.
Her career took off since then, singing roles such as Mimi in "La Boheme," Liu in "Turandot" and Micaela in "Carmen." Now Hong is the female singer with the longest collaboration with the Met.
The 55-year-old opera singer emphasized that knowing oneself is key to success in the musical world.
""I am a lyric coloratura soprano. I know what I am good at and what is beyond my vocal range," Hong said. "The world of opera singers is small. When you sing well, you get a lot of offers and could fall through temptations of easy success. However, I have seen too many singers disappear after a few years and realized that keeping my voice and developing it to its highest potential is paramount to early success. I think it is a big achievement to maintain my voice at the age of 55."
She also understood that an opera company is an organization. "In Korea, I am often called ‘diva' in a good way, but usually a diva means a good, but selfish performer. A vocalist has responsibilities such as keeping the voice in shape and studying roles. I tried to remain unchanged throughout my career, and not fall into a fantasy life of stardom," Hong said.
The year 2014 has been a year of new challenges for the Prima Donna. Hong became a professor at Yonsei University and won the Ho-Am Prize for her contribution to the arts.
"I want to convey all I know as a vocalist to my students. It is more than just teaching technique, but I want to share my life, music and how they go together," she said. Hong was rumored to lead the Korean National Opera, which has been vacant since March, but Hong dismissed the hearsay. "I am an opera singer and I love being one. Yes, I was offered the position and heading an opera company is a longtime dream of mine, but I have no experience as a leader. I've been a performer for a long time and am ignorant of the Korean opera scene due to my residence in the States. I think I need some time to prepare for the position before just taking it," she said.
Still Hong maintains a strong career as a top opera singer at the same time. "I am often offered to play Cio-Cio San in ‘Madame Butterfly,' but I had never played it because it does not fit my vocal range. The Metropolitan Opera offered the role to me two years ago and now I think I can play the role well as an Asian female opera singer, but haven't made the decision yet because it is beyond my limit."
Hong hopes to perform in an opera influenced by Korea someday. "'Madame Butterfly' is about a Japanese woman and ‘Turandot' is set in ancient China. But there is no opera about Korea. If Korean classic composers come up with an opera with an original Korean story, I am willing to take part in it," the Prima Donna said. Hong's Seoul recital is priced from 40,000 to 120,000 won. For more information, call 1577-5266.