Do It For Yourself: Ji-Min Park and his work at Covent Garden [The Royal Opera’s La traviata – 8-17 July 2010 – and Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance – 17 July]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Korean tenor who ends his year as Jette Parker Principal with appearances in La traviata and in the Summer Performance by the Young Artists…

Ji-Min Park. Photograph:

Be they singers, conductors or directors, the youngsters who triumph at auditions and get taken on by The Royal Opera as Jette Parker Young Artists usually remain for two years. One such was Ji-Min Park the tenor from South Korea who was accepted in September 2007. After two rewarding years it would have been time to say goodbye in 2009, but Ji-Min was asked to stay on for one more year as Jette Parker Principal – this followed the precedent which had been set earlier when another talented young artist, Liora Grodnikaite, was asked to continue under this new designation. In Ji-Min’s case, it happened this way: “David Gowland, the artistic director of the programme, Peter Katona, the Royal Opera’s director of casting, and Elaine Padmore, the director of opera here, approached me and asked if I would be willing to remain for a further twelve months. They did this because they had a number of small tenor parts available in the 2009/10 season and quite a lot of parts to be covered – plus they could offer me one big role, which was to appear as Rodolfo in two performances of La bohème. I needed more experience, so it was good to be asked and I can only say that I am a very lucky man.”

Wider experience continues to come his way. When the current Covent Garden season ends Ji-Min will tour with Royal Opera to Japan and future plans include Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, the former for New Israeli Opera and the latter in Santiago. In addition he will be reprising the role of Rodolfo, this time in Toulouse. But, although a number of classical singers from his part of the world have made successful careers, it is not easy for somebody from Korea – western music of the classical variety is not popular there. One consequence of that is that anybody born in Korea who sets out to sing in opera will need to consider a life abroad, and that fact may have influenced the attitude of Ji-Min’s parents which, sometimes positive, could also be negative.

Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo (La boheme, Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Johan Persson

When considering this background, Ji-Min starts off with a general comment. “I think it’s a problem of education because both in elementary school and in high schools in Korea the curriculum is quite low quality. What brought me to classical music and gave me the chance to hear it for the first time was the fact that my parents were huge fans of opera and collected lots of CDs. They would also play the piano together and sing, so they asked me if I would like to learn the piano. That way I came to learn not just the piano but also another instrument, a traditional Korean one that sounds not unlike a violin.” In fact it could be suggested that music had played a part in Ji-Min’s life even earlier since he mentions not too earnestly a fact that might just have been relevant: “When my mother was pregnant and was expecting me she heard lots of operatic music, especially La traviata which is the one opera that is quite popular in Korea.”

Given this background it might be expected that Ji-Min’s parents would have supported him wholeheartedly when he came to consider a career as a classical singer, but that was not the case. “They really hated the idea – they would say ‘Ji-Min, you have to treat it only as a hobby’. Actually my father had wanted to be an opera-singer himself earlier on, but at that time in Korea it was not possible and was quite a poor job.” However, as Ji-Min goes on to explain there was a time when his parents appeared to be taking a different attitude. “In my youth I became a Korean pop-singer and Professor Philip Kang saw me when I was performing that kind of music. He came up to me and explained that he was a professor at Seoul University and said that he thought that if I wanted to change my voice and become an opera-singer he could make me a huge star. At that stage I was not that interested in that kind of music, so initially I rejected his proposal. But when I told my parents what had happened they thought that it was a great offer which I should accept because singing pop was less likely to provide a long-term future. I think that what really encouraged them to take that view was the fact that Seoul University is a truly prestigious place.”

Whatever the motivation of Ji-Min’s parents in encouraging him to go there, it was a decision that changed his life and Professor Kang not only gave him lessons but paid out of his own resources to enable Ji-Min to attend a masterclass in Vienna. He had already realised that Ji-Min was a tenor rather than a baritone, which is how he had started out, and in Ji-Min’s last year at university he recommended that he take part in the Belvedere competition in Vienna. “‘If you go there and win it will help you to become an opera singer more quickly, so try it’. That was his advice. It was the first time in my life that I had entered an international competition. I went on to win a special prize; a Vienna conservatory professor asked me if I wanted to become her student. I told Professor Kang what had happened and he approved of my doing that following on from graduation. So it happened just like that – which is why I say that I’ve been quite lucky.”

Ji-Min Park as Scaramuccio (Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera, 2008). Photograph: Clive Barda

But if that makes it all sound easy the fact is that there was a tough time ahead for this young man far away from home. “When I was a student in Vienna I had lots of auditions. I was putting myself to the test. No one suggested it, and I don’t know if it was a good idea or not, but I wanted a job. Perhaps because they didn’t want someone who was still a student I was rejected all the time and I had almost one-hundred-and-eighty auditions. I know that because as a kind of hobby I would keep the train and air tickets from those occasions. One that I remember was when I took a train journey lasting some six hours. I went from Vienna to somewhere in Germany and did two hours of warming up. Then after hearing me sing for just two bars they said: ‘Thank you: see you next time’. The feedback they gave me was this: ‘your voice is not our type of voice: we are looking for dramatic tenors’. When things like that happen you really feel the challenge. If I was determined, it was because there is a kind of traditional form of behaviour in Korea which dictates that rather than ask for help you do all that you can yourself.”

If the auditions were disappointing, competitions which he entered at the suggestion of other singers proved more rewarding. “I did a lot, probably between ten and twenty. One of them was in Coburg in Germany after which I got some work in Budapest including the Duke in Rigoletto and a Korean who heard me there invited me to sing in Korea as Rodolfo in La bohème. Even more importantly I met Bernadette Grimmett who as artistic director put on summer concerts for Opéra de Baugé in France. She asked me to sing Ferrando in a concert performance of Così fan tutte, and the following year I did Carmen for her and then Don Pasquale. But, most important of all, if I hadn’t met her I don’t think that I would be here. It was she who told me of the Royal Opera’s Young Artists programme and offered to put me in touch with people known to her who were involved. Actually it is not my way to meet someone before an audition, so I didn’t follow up on that. But I thanked her and went on to do it my own way: I made a recording of my voice and sent it in, and they duly gave me an audition here and after further rounds I won a place. I did it for myself: my parents didn’t help, and my country not at all; it was just me, but I think that I’m quite strong.” He laughs when he asserts this, but many an artist in his position might well have given up.

Ji-Min Park as Third Esquire, 2nd right (Parsifal, Royal Opera, 2007. Photograph: Clive Barda

During his time as a Jette Parker Young Artist, Ji-Min appeared in a number of small roles ranging from parts in Parsifal to Dido and Aeneas, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann to Die tote Stadt and, in addition, to working with and observing major singers, conductors and directors, he had the benefit of attending masterclasses given by the likes of Leo Nucci, Jonas Kaufmann and Rolando Villazón. “They offer so much about singing technique and about language and from conductors you learn much about musical technique, but at times there’s more than you can take in. Also, while all of their ideas may be right for some, it’s not necessarily the case that they are right for your particular voice, so you have to take that into account too.”

A year ago I attended the 2009 summer matinee by the Young Artists in which Ji-Min was partnered by the Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura in an excerpt from Act Three of Manon and, indeed, he is currently covering the same role, that of Des Grieux, for Covent Garden. He will also be doing that during the tour to Japan which will in addition include a new departure for him when he is one of the soloists in Handel’s Messiah conducted by Antonio Pappano to be performed in Mozart’s version. When I refer back to last year’s summer presentation, he speaks with enthusiasm of working with Eri Nakamura. “With other singers there can be times when they give you nothing. I won’t mention names, but, particularly if you are singing a love scene with them, you think ‘please, please, give me some emotion’. But no – they are just there waiting for their next line. To connect with another singer can be difficult, but Eri was amazing because in that scene from Manon she gave me lots of emotion. When I get that, I can take it up so that it becomes a process of back and toss, back and toss. The director gave us some moves, but we would add to it by talking it through and deciding for instance to hold back the moment of kissing. By waiting for the beats in the music it became a matter of delay building anticipation, a case of ‘and – and – and – and kiss’. Through that rapport the emotion just came through naturally and it was a great time, a happy time.”

Eri will be featured once again in this year’s Summer Performance by the Young Artists which takes place in the main house as a matinee on Saturday 17 July with the Royal Opera Orchestra and Robin Stapleton conducting alongside two Young Artists, Dominic Grier and Steven Moore. The programme compiled by David Gowland is one of contrasts: four extracts from the works of Richard Strauss in the first half (these range from the ever-popular Der Rosenkavalier to the less-well-known Die schweigsame Frau by way of Capriccio and Intermezzo) and a selection from operetta in the second half. Operetta, that form much loved by such established singers as Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirchschlager, is a novelty at Covent Garden and the anticipated programme (items were subject to change at the time of this interview) offers music not only by Johann Strauss II, Offenbach, Lehár and Suppé but, more unexpectedly, three numbers from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. Eri’s contributions come in both halves of the concert: Intermezzo in the first and Der Zigeunerbaron and Die Fledermaus in the second. As the Jette Parker Principal, Ji-Min looks forward to a guest appearance (before La traviata in the evening), he fills out the chorus of guests in Die Fledermaus but is particularly happy to have a solo number from Lehár’s Giuditta which he describes as being his favourite of all such pieces in operetta – a judgment of some weight since he studied operetta during his time in Vienna and, indeed, one of the competitions that he won was centred on the genre.

Ji-Min’s other current undertaking is the small role of Gastone which he essayed in his first year at Covent Garden and which he is now reprising in their latest revival of La traviata. This time around the Angela Gheorghiu is Violetta and James Valenti is Alfredo. Being a small role – Gastone is seen in Act One and reappears in Act Three in the lively entertainment segment which with chorus and dancers contrasts with the surrounding drama – there are no significant changes from the first time. However, brief though it is, it could be called a significant role since it is Gastone who introduces Alfredo to Violetta, and had he not done so they would not have become lovers! In any case the role is meaningful to Ji-Min in a personal way being the part which led to his finding somebody to act as his agent. However when it comes to selecting a stand-out role, Ji-Min has a special passion for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. The latter is a favourite opera because of its emotional impact and he will be covering the role of Roméo next season at Covent Garden while looking forward to the opportunity to sing it whenever that proves possible. Even so his signature role has to be Rodolfo in La bohème linked to the occasion last January when he performed it twice at the Royal Opera House. “When I told my parents that I would be doing that they didn’t seem to believe it. They were still saying ‘No, no: you have to come back home and study other things’. But I invited them here, and when they saw me on-stage they finally had to believe it. They were sufficiently impressed, and now they accept that this kind of singing is what I do.”

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