Twice Over: Ji Hyun Kim and La traviata – The Royal Opera’s La traviata [2-25 January 2012]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The Korean tenor talks to Mansel Stimpson about his career and about his participation as a Young Artist in Covent Garden’s production of one of Verdi’s masterpieces…

Ji Hyun Kim as Gastone & Ailyn Pérez as Violetta (La traviata, The Royal Opera, December 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Ji Hyun Kim is one of those young singers from Korea who are starting to make their mark. These days many Koreans are becoming known in the opera houses of the West, as illustrated by the recent recruits to the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Covent Garden. Notable is tenor Ji-min Park who joined in 2007 and, following the usual two, was asked to stay for another year. In 2010 Ji Hyun Kim followed him. Now in his second year he has a new near-namesake among the Young Artists in the bass Jihoon Kim who is already attracting attention.

Given the emergence of much new operatic talent from Korea, it seems appropriate to ask 28-year-old, Seoul-born Ji Hyun if he can account for it and if the level of interest in his homeland for western music, opera in particular, is increasing. “Basically we Koreans just love singing and dancing: that’s part of our culture. Because there are many Christian churches in Korea we have easy access to church music. As a child it was natural to be in a church choir and when I went to elementary school I joined the choir there too. I was very aware of music when growing up. I believe that we Koreans have an instinctive desire to make beautiful sounds when we sing, but there’s also another advantage that we have when turning to opera. If you are Chinese or Japanese, for example, your language is full of accents and individual features which are largely absent from Korean and that makes it rather easier for us to adapt to the pronunciation of words in other languages.”

If Korea can be thought of as a musical nation, Ji Hyun’s background fits in perfectly. “My mother trained as a singer and my father, Myung-Yup Kim, is well established as a choral conductor and something of an expert on church music. When I started to take music seriously I was already sixteen or seventeen and a High School student, but my father began the piano at a much earlier age – when still a child he would listen to music and then sit down and play. My older brother is a conductor and he has just graduated from a conservatory in Stuttgart.”

Given the importance of music to his family one might suppose that Ji Hyun and his brother would have received much encouragement to take it up, but the truth is more complicated. “Initially my parents didn’t want either of us to become musicians: they were aware of just how hard it is to succeed. My father would say that if you are not going to be the best then you will never gain the interest of the public, so he didn’t want to encourage us unless he saw evidence of an exceptional talent. In my case, it was my mother who played the decisive role because in my teens she sensed that I had a talent which justified her in making arrangements for me to study with a music professor.”

Referring to conditions in Seoul today, Ji Hyun mentions a music academy built there a few years ago which is becoming well-known and now represents the obvious route for students. But in his time there was nothing like that. To have a decent chance of getting a job, you had to graduate from a university. So after High School Ji Hyun went to Seoul’s Yonsei University as a general student but with the opportunity to take advantage of what it had to offer musically. Another feature of Korean life was the presence of a German Cultural Centre, which set up a competition which required entrants to sing Schubert. All of this came together. “My professor at the university had studied in Germany and after working with him I entered the competition and got a prize. At that time I really wanted to be a Lieder singer and would listen to artists like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Ian Bostridge. Later on, though, I came to feel that German was not an easy language in which to sing. These days when I work outside the opera house it is mainly in concert-hall programmes which feature operatic music.”

In retrospect, it was appearances in his university days that would prove most relevant to Ji Hyun’s future career. One role which he took there was that of Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore and he acted as cover for the role of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte when the University celebrated its centenary and put on a special performance of the Mozart. But it was lesser Mozart, that work of his childhood – Bastien und Bastienne – which quite unexpectedly gave Ji Hyun a memorable experience. “After I graduated from university my professor suggested the Sejong Arts Centre in Seoul was seeking singers for that opera. As a matter of etiquette I could hardly fail to follow it up although the idea of doing it using the Korean language didn’t excite me. But appearing in it was fascinating because there’s a lot of dialogue and that meant that there was much to learn both in terms of acting and reacting. When I sing in Italian or German I obviously know the meaning through a translation but I discovered how different it is, how immediate, to be singing in your own language. I enjoyed it very much and had something for which to thank my professor.”

For Ji Hyun’s singing to develop further, it was necessary for him to come to Europe. His first port of call was Rome, which gave him the chance to fulfil his ambition of getting close to some great singers. “I think that while every great singer is special they also share something in common and I wanted to learn more about that. I had classes with Renato Bruson and Salvatore Fisichella and gathered some valuable tips, but lasting just one or two weeks it was really too short.” The other disappointment with Rome was the difficulty of getting work. “I was part of a great Korean community there and more than ninety-percent of them seemed to be singers trying to make their way, so I felt that I needed to move elsewhere.”

The elsewhere proved to be France after he had won a prize in Toulouse’s International Singing Competition. For two years Ji Hyun was based in Marseilles which gave him his professional debut and through his association with CNIPAL (Centre national d’insertion professionnelle des artistes lyriques) he was able to sing in other French houses and concert halls.

The next step – a significant one – was to be accepted as a Jette Parker Young Artist. Out of 350 applicants he was taken on to fill one of five available places. But what Ji Hyun describes as the most important time in his life occurred in the CNIPAL period – due to Ivan Domzalski. “What was so amazing was the way in which he really helped me to go beyond singing and to capture feeling. With no vocal coach in those two years in Marseilles, I had to learn technique on my own. I would practice daily and write things down but it was only when I was able to check it out with him that through his conducting he enabled me to link technique to my real inner feeling. He showed me that true music is when you bring them together.”

Turning now to Ji Hyun’s experiences in London: “Everything is very useful but the most useful of all is that I can watch very famous singers at work. By listening and observing, you can learn so much: what they do in a particular situation, how they act, how they move.” As an indication of how busy he has been, in his first year at Covent Garden in addition to being First Prisoner in Fidelio, he also covered a number of roles including two substantial parts, Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de perles and Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia. In this July’s Young Artists Summer Performance he showed his skills in excerpts from two contrasted Rossini operas, Il signor Bruschino and Otello. Does he have a preference between the comic and the serious? “I definitely like to do both because being involved in things that are opposites is a challenge and I always like a challenge. If something is difficult for me, I want to take it on and conquer it. Given my character, basically serious and sometimes a bit shy, comedy does not come so easily but, even so, I love Rossini’s comic roles where in the recitative you have to catch that fast communication which is so typically Italian and which makes the public laugh. In serious opera, I concentrate on the character and hope that the public concentrates with me so that in some way we can conjoin. Nevertheless, for the moment at least, I tend to prefer singing operatic works in a concert hall because there your communication with the audience is so direct.”

As for the current season, following La traviata Ji Hyun will appear in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and at the end of the season there’s a special presentation of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims featuring past and present Young Artists including all three from Korea. Cover roles proliferate: Elvino in La sonnambula, Tonio in La fille du Régiment and Fenton in Falstaff. Studying a role in this context is obviously valuable, but Ji Hyun gets more satisfaction when he knows that he will be appearing. “What you sing may last only a minute but he’s an individual with his own character and in that minute I want to do my best.” It emerges, nevertheless, that it was being involved in a cover that gave Ji Hyun a special moment of excitement and appreciation. It was as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de perles. “Because of that I was lucky enough to have a session with Antonio Pappano. I had been practising Nadir’s aria with its high notes which you have to sing very quietly and I found it too hard: I couldn’t do it. But when Pappano was in front of me conducting the aria became very easy. When you sing alone you have to push using just your own energy, but Pappano was so clear about things that his presence meant that we could share energy. That helped me so much. He not only provided the sense of what was needed but he gave feeling to me which in turn enabled me to give feeling to the aria.”

When we meet Ji Hyun has two remaining appearances with the second cast of La traviata and the following week is due to start rehearsals with the third (unusually Covent Garden has opted this season for three distinct casts for Richard Eyre’s celebrated production). Fellow Young Artist Hanna Hipp moves from playing Flora to appearing as the maid Annina with Ji Hyun the only singer reprising a role, Gastone. In January the lead roles are taken by Ermonela Jaho (Anna Netrebko for two performances), by Stephen Costello (yielding the role of Alfredo to Vittorio Grigolo for the last two presentations) and Paolo Gavanelli. Ji Hyun makes two appearances in the opera, the first being in Act One when he introduces Alfredo to Violetta. In such a small part does he expect anything to change? “I do because although it’s a packed stage with a need for precise movements that remain the same, each person is different. At present when I move to Violetta to introduce Alfredo, it is Ailyn Pérez’s Violetta and Piotr Beczala’s Alfredo but the artists who take over will have their own feel for the characters and I shall respond to that by reacting differently.”

Ji Hyun’s other appearance comes in Act Two/scene 2 where his main contribution is to lead a divertissement with men dressed as matadors telling in song and dance a love story concerning a young matador impressing his girl. The unusual instruction is that Gastone and the matadors sing together but without Gastone acting as a soloist. How does Ji Hyun handle this? “Well, yes, the score does indicate that I should sing but in this production I have to introduce the tale and be part of the choreography so the truth is that I don’t sing! I couldn’t really do both, so you see me telling the story with them but without using my voice! It goes at a fast tempo and I have to match up with them so it’s largely acting in this instance.” Even not singing at this point Ji Hyun is certainly communicating with the audience, so he seems quite happy with the way that it is done. But to return to singing, what path does he feel he is now taking? “I am enjoying the French language so Les Pêcheurs de perles and things like that appeal, but while I want to be flexible I am much drawn to bel canto and to the works of Rossini and Donizetti and I would say to Donizetti especially.”

  • La traviata – Seven performances, from 2 to 25 January, all at 7 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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