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Posted : 2014-06-15 18:50
Updated : 2014-06-15 18:59

A Korean sweep in opera

Susanna in ‘Marriage of Figaro'

Soprano Hong Hei-kyung has sung a wide range for roles at New York's Metropolitan Opera for 30 years. / Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera Archives


Local talents become dominant force at top theaters, competitions


By Do Je-hae

Koreans have always had a singing culture but who would have thought that they would be a dominant force in the overwhelmingly white domain of opera? That is precisely what is happening at some major theaters and competitions.

In the past few weeks, a string of Koreans singers have made headlines here with distinguished prizes, while the Metropolitan Opera's Hong Hei-kyung celebrated her 30th year at the top U.S. opera house last week, a feat that only a few singers have achieved.

Hong is setting an example for the next generation of Korean singers on the global stage, not just for her singing excellence. Three decades at a place like the Met is not just a result of musical talent alone. It also requires virtues like a good attitude, modesty, perseverance and hard work — qualities that are not always associated with so-called divas.

Freia in ‘Das Rheingold

During a press conference ahead of her recital on June 12, she underlined these virtues as key ingredients for her a distinguished Met career.

"In Korea, I am often called diva, but usually a diva is associated with being a selfish performer," Hong said. "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."

In 1984, the lyric soprano made her Met debut under the baton of James Levine, music director of the Met since 1976. Levine had her singing the role of Servilia in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," and Hong has appeared at the Met every season since then.

Here are some common principles that have propelled Korean singers into the center of opera world.

Gilda in ‘Rigoletto'


Modesty

Hong has broken racial barriers to become one of the longest-serving artists at the Met, among the most coveted venues in the profession. It is a place that features only the best singers and it is also a place that appreciates team work as a core value.

Even luminaries like tenor Placido Domingo cannot put his ego before a performance and expect to last there.

Opera fans may remember that the Met has a history of ousting even the biggest stars, as seen in the sensational 1994 dismissal of the soprano Kathleen Battle, citing "unprofessional actions that were profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all cast members."

Bass Youn Kwang-chul


It was an astonishing blow to the superstar singer, who had been a fixture at the Met after her 1977 debut there with Levine. Maestro Levine had been her staunch supporter, but even his absolute admiration of her talent could not keep Battle at the Met after a series of controversial behavior that estranged the lyric singer from her colleagues. Battle, who had wowed audiences with lead roles in Mozart, Strauss and Donizetti at the Met, has not performed there since 1994, depriving Met audiences of one of opera's loveliest and charming voices.

Looking back at the instance, Hong's longevity seems all the more special, given her nationality. An Asian face doing Mozartian leads, for example, may not sell with the audience. But Hong has been able to convince concertgoers and casting directors year after year.

"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.

Bass-baritone Samuel Youn


Perseverance

Inspired by pioneers like Hong, many Korean opera singers have become a regular presence at some of the world's foremost opera venues. One of them is the bass Youn Kwang-chul, who in recent years has become a Wagnerian specialist.

The 48-year-old, who joined the Berlin State Opera in 1994, 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,"the 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight and his quest for the Holy Grail.

"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," said Daniel Barenboim, director of the Berlin State Opera, in a New York Times feature about Youn.

In the piece, Youn underlined extra efforts he had to make to survive as an opera singer. He had to try harder than his colleagues during his years in Berlin where he built a foundation for an international career before repatriating to Korea in 2004. He would go to the movies to study Western culture, which he found harder than singing. There was also an age barrier. Basses play older roles, so he also had to learn to hide his youth.

Soprano Hwang Sumi

Hard work and perserverance have put him at the roster of iconic venues like the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the shrine to Wagner, performing Gurnemanz, which by now has become his international calling card.

Bass-baritone Samuel Youn, a 15-year veteran at the Cologne Opera, just won the "Koelner Opernpreis" given to singers for their exceptional contribution to opera every two years. "Youn has brought pride to the city of Cologne through his performances at the Bayreuth Festival," a statement from the city said.

Soprano Hwang Sumi became the latest Korean singer to win a major international competition Belgium's Queen Elisabeth Competition earlier this month. It is among the most coveted titles for budding musicians, along with Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition and the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

As first prize winner, the singer won concert and recording engagements for launching an international career, in addition to a hefty amount of prize money.
Tenor Kang Yosep, the first Korean singer to join the prestigious Deutsche Oper Berlin, is a rising star who has just starred in Puccini's "La Boheme" at the Vienna State Opera and will make his Metropolitan Opera debut this year.

Tenor Kang Yosep


Versatility

Reaching a certain level of success as classical singer is requires skills that instrumentalists don't have to worry about — being multi-lingual and mastering acting skills.

One of the biggest reasons for Hong's advances at the Met is her versatility. She has sung in more than 40 roles during her career at the Met. At age 52, she was still convincing as a young girl in love in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" in 2012. She waited until 2004 to sing her first Violetta in "La Traviata," to ensure that her voice was ready to tackle the vocal challenges of such an emotional role. She became the first Asian to sing Violetta at the Met.

In recent years, Hong has been recognized for her performances in Met's revival of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" and William Decker's modern production of "La Traviata."

In 2012, the Hong was lauded by fans and critics when she was thrown in at the last minute to star in Decker's strikingly modern production of Verdi's "La Traviata," replacing the indisposed French soprano Natlalie Dessay.

An AP review read: "Hong remains a marvel of vocal freshness and allure after nearly 30 seasons at the Met. The rapid passage work of Sempre Libera held no terrors for her, and the purity and control of her Addio del Passato, with its long-held final A-natural, was like a master class in technique." She had never performed Decker's version before, making her stellar performance all the more remarkable.
As of 2010, her most frequent-sung role at the Met is Mimi in "La Boheme" (59 performances), followed by Liu in "Turandot" (33), Micaela in "Carmen" (31) and Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro (30).

A winner of the 1982 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Hong has been a role model for Korean opera singers at the New York-based opera theater. She is the most experienced among an increasing number of Korean singers at the Met, including Kathleen Kim and Kim Ji-hee.



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