Kang Yosep seems to be a hot commodity in Europe’s opera scene.
Last December, he sang the leading role in Puccini’s tragic opera “La Boheme” for 17 days in three different productions staged by top opera houses in Berlin, Mannheim and Vienna.
His schedule for this year and the next looks much the same. He is to perform in the German cities of Munich, Leipzig and Dresden, and in Warsaw and Vienna in the next few months.
“I would love to spend some time with my family in Seoul, but my schedule is getting a little crazy these days. I am not sure if I can make that happen,” the tenor said in an interview at a Seoul cafe last week.
Kang is currently in town, rehearsing for the Korea National Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” to be staged at Seoul Arts Center next week.
A humble start
Born and raised in Korea, Kang was always the kid in the class who sang well. His family wasn’t well off (his father passed away while he was in middle school) and no one around him believed that he was exceptionally talented at singing.
“I never knew whether I was talented enough to succeed as a professional singer,” he said.
Kang Yosep poses for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul last week. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
In 1996, he entered the Musical Educational Department of Sahmyook University, dreaming of becoming a music teacher.
It wasn’t until his fourth year there that he met someone who saw a promising tenor in him. While Kang was attending master’s classes at the International Mozarteum Summer Academy in Saltsburg, one of his professors picked him from among all the pupils to sing on stage for the academy’s closing concert, and persuaded him to study in Europe to become a professional singer.
In 2000, he packed his bag and flew to Germany to study at Berlin University of the Arts. His mother and elder sister were able to pay for his education at the university for little more than a year, so after that he had to find a way to support himself.
Kang found a job at an opera studio in Cologne, where he sang three times a week at 11 a.m. mostly in operas for children.
“I’ve been a tea kettle, a frog and many other things, but most of the times a prince. Being a teakettle was the most difficult role because I had to do this with my arm the whole time,” he said, jokingly, bending one arm like a spout.
One day about six months later, he got a phone call from Deutsche Oper Berlin, which wanted to sign him. In 2002, he became the first Korean ever to join the top-class opera house.
“I still don’t know how Deutsche Oper found out about me and got my phone number.”
At the opera house he had to start from scratch again. He was given minor, anonymous roles, but he practiced as if he was the lead singer.
An official from the Korea National Opera recalled an encounter with him during those days.
“He was the only Korean there, so I recognized him. Staff at the opera house praised him so much and said that he would be big in the future.”
Two years later, Kang began getting lead roles, and, finally, the tenor got a chance to unleash his full potential on stage.
On a roll
Kang made his debut in Korea in 2012 with the Korea National Opera’s production of “La Boheme.” He played Rodolfo, the male protagonist, in the star-studded work topped off by maestro Chung Myung-whun.
It was a significant performance for him as his talent had gone unnoticed here.
“There was lots of pressure, of course, for me to prove my worth here. I was well aware how people here were curious about me. I graduated from an obscure university here and built my career in Europe,” he said. “My mom came to see me on stage.”
It was with this role that he made another leap in his career.
In December 2013, he was taking some time off in Germany after parting with Deutsche Oper in August that year. The Vienna State Opera called at around 5 p.m., asking him to come to Austria and fill in for a role in just two hours.
He flew there, arrived at the theater five minutes before 7 p.m., got dressed and the orchestra started playing.
Opposite star soprano Angela Gheorghiu, Kang sang to more than four minutes of ovation from the audience and rave reviews from media and critics. He played the role 16 times more in that month alone.
Leaving Deutsche Oper was a tough decision, Kang said.
“I thought it was time to leave to make a second start in my career,” he said.
Since December’s “La Boheme,” his career has been on a roll.
He was contacted by the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York for “La Boheme” again, but turned it down because he was already booked.
“Things (that I dreamed of happening to me) are coming a little earlier than I would like them to. That’s a little bit of worry now,” he said.
Kang will play Alfredo, the male protagonist in the Korea National Opera’s production of “La Traviata” at Seoul Arts Center from April 24-27.
Although the opera has been performed here and elsewhere numerous times, the upcoming production will be strikingly different. Director Arnaud Bernard says it will be “a very exciting yet violent ‘La Traviata.’”
“It is the story of a sick prostitute and it is both physically and mentally violent,” Bernard said. “Opera is not a concert. It is a drama. Blinded by opera’s magnificent staging and costumes, we often overlook the actual story in it.”
Kang said he lost some weight and got bruises on his knees and arms from rehearsals.
“I have a feeling that this production, if things work out well, is going to be of world-class quality,” he said. “I hope it will open a new chapter in my career, like the 2012 Korea National Opera’s ‘La Boheme’ did for me.”
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)