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[Herald Interview] Opera singers’ life on stage and off

Rising stars Cathleen Kim and Elizabeth Deshong talk about life, career and friendship

Published : 2014-08-04 21:03:28

Soprano Cathleen Kim refrains from talking before performing.

Sparing the vocal cords helps not only vocally, given that she has to pull off stratospheric coloratura arias on stage. It also helps her stay focused on the character she has to become.

Then as she walks on stage, she feels that something inside her flips the switch that turns her stage persona on.

“From the very first step onto the stage, I become a different person. I become the character,” Kim said.

The process is very different for mezzo soprano Elizabeth Deshong.

“Well ... It might sound like I am not as careful as Cathleen. But I need quite a bit of warmup to go on stage,” she said. 

Soprano Cathleen Kim and Mezzo soprano Elizabeth Deshong Soprano Cathleen Kim and Mezzo soprano Elizabeth Deshong
On stage, she feels that she is still the same person, but heightened in order to fill a bigger space.

“It’s like you become very aware of all parts of yourself and draw on the parts that you wouldn’t use in everyday life,” she explained.

Sitting on a couch together for a joint interview at a snowless ski resort in Gangwon Province last Sunday afternoon, the two looked as though they would have little in common except that both are rising stars in the opera world.

Kim is quiet, reserved and physically petite with the typical look of a Korean woman. On stage, she sings all the runs, leaps and trills required for a coloratura soprano, with such a lovely, fresh and light voice.

Beside her, Deshong, who hails from Pennsylvania, is a towering woman with blonde hair and grayish olive eyes. Her voice has rich, deep tones of a plush mezzo soprano.

The joint interview took place on July 27, the day after they performed together at Alpensia Resort, as part of this year’s Great Mountains Music Festival.

Together they sang “Giorno d’orrore” from Rossini’s opera “Semiramide” and Mozart’s “Coronation Mass.”

As the interview proceeded, Deshong started talking about how she is obsessed with hygiene before major performances ― not touching door handles or anything publicly used, for example.

Kim chimed in. “Me too. I don’t shake hands.”

“After all, our body is our instrument. Our entire career depends on the tiny organ ― the vocal cord,” Kim added, with Deshong nodding enthusiastically.

Then the two spoke with one voice how difficult it is to balance life and work as a globe-trotting opera singer and how lucky they are to have ultra-supportive husbands.

“My husband and I have been together for 14 years now. He knows how hard it was for me to get here,” Kim said.

Deshong added: “My husband and I have been together for a long time as well, so we kind of grew into this career, in a sense.”

“This type of art really takes all of you. When you’re a singer, you are your own instrument. You have to do a lot of taking care of yourself which can appear selfish at times to people from the outside,” she went on.

Kim and Deshong first met each other in 2006 in Chicago.

Back then, both were aspiring opera singers who had just been accepted into a young artist program at Chicago Lyric Opera. By chance, they moved into the same building and stayed there for the two-year apprenticeship. Naturally, they got close.

But when their careers started taking off after the program, they didn’t get to see each other a lot.

“Our paths do cross from time to time,” Deshong said. “Sometimes we were at the same building, but we never performed together until last year.”

Their first show together was at the much-coveted New York Metropolitan Opera ― Benjamin Britten’s opera “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Kim played Tytania, queen of the fairies, while Deshong took the role of Hermia, one of the two young romantic characters in the opera. It was a perfect way to reunite, they said.

As for future plans, Kim said she wanted to sing more in Europe.

Since her debut at the Met in 2006, she has been a regular, returning to the world’s most prestigious opera house every season. Her upcoming operatic engagements include places like Belgium, Germany’s Frankfurt and the U.S.’ San Diego, she said.

“For me, it’s ‘more of the same please,’” Deshong said. “I have some exciting role debuts coming up, which I can’t talk about in detail right now.”

By Lee Sun-young (

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