Three decades at the top

By Korea Herald

Soprano Hong Hei-kyung shares secret behind successful career at Met opera

  • Published : Jun 3, 2014 - 20:44
  • Updated : Jun 3, 2014 - 20:44
Soprano Hong Hei-kyung vividly remembers the night she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It was ten years after she flew to the U.S. all by herself at the tender age of 15 to study at the Juilliard School.

“It was December of 1984. My (first) daughter was just a little baby,” she recalled. “I remember the dress, the hair and everything of that evening. I remember the stage ... how I sang an aria at one corner, moved to another and did the recitative there.”

Playing the role of Servilia in Mozart’s opera “La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus),” Hong became the first Korean to take the much-coveted stage of the Met on that night.

It was the start of a trailblazing 30-year career that many young, aspiring musicians in Korea and elsewhere dream of following.

Since the 1984 debut, she has sang nearly 350 times more on the same stage in wide-ranging roles such as Mimi in “La Boheme,” Liu in “Turandot,” Micaela in “Carmen,” Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)”and Gilda in “Rigoletto.”

Now one of the most highly esteemed principal singers on the Met roster, Hong looks back on her career and what she feels most proud of is not the glamour of being a prima donna. It’s, surprisingly, the longevity of her career, she said at a press conference in Seoul on Monday. 
Hong Hei-kyung speaks during a press conference at Seoul Arts Center, southern Seoul, on Monday. The soprano will hold a recital there on June 12, marking 30 years as a principal singer of the New York Metropolitan Opera. (Credia)

“I’ve seen so many excellent singers vanish from the stage after three to five years of performing extensively and overstraining their voice. So my goal was, from very early on, to be able to sing until 55.”

According to her, a person’s singing voice is still in development until 35, reaches its full maturity around 45, and starts to decline after 55.

“Typically, singers at a young age just belt out (their part) to sing impressively. They don’t know their voice, let alone its limits. They may ruin their voice by over-singing,” she explained.

“The opera world is smaller than you think. If a singer nails a role, he or she gets a lot of calls from all over the world, wanting to sign him or her for another role or performance. But you have to be wise and brave to say no to those that don’t suit your voice,” she went on.

Hong has been a picky performer, so much so that her agent had to get used to turning down requests which other artists would have jumped at.

Constant self-control and efforts to preserve her vocal cords were the secret behind her longevity in singing, she added.

In fact, the soprano has a surprisingly fresh and radiant voice for a woman in her 50s. In 2011, when Hong was 51, she impressed audiences as well as critics by impeccably portraying 16-year-old Juliette in Gounod’s opera “Romeo et Juliette” with the right sweetness and purity.

This July, she’ll turn 55. As she said, her voice may then start declining.

“Naturally, I think a lot about what path I should take from now on,” Hong said.

One thing she knows is that she wants to share her experiences with aspiring singers here. She recently started teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul.

She also received an offer from the Korea National Opera to be its president and artistic director, but turned it down.

“For a person who has been in the opera business for 30 years, running an opera company feels like a dream come true. But I don’t know anything about the business and administrative side. I don’t know how things are in the Korean opera scene, either,” she said.

As for her stage project, the virtuoso has one particular operatic role in mind: Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” a young Japanese geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer, is abandoned and kills herself.

“Because I am Asian, I used to get a lot of requests for that role. People think an Asian singer should play the role. But because of that, I intentionally avoided the role,” she said.

“I am thinking I can do that role now,” she said.

Celebrating 30 years at the Met, Hong will hold a recital at Seoul Arts Center on June 12. The program consists of arias from operas that have been central to her repertoire at the U.S. opera house, such as “The Clemency of Titus,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “La Boheme.” Ticket prices start at 40,000 won. For more information, visit www.clubbalcony.com or call 1577-5266.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)