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[Herald Interview] Soprano Im Sun-hae still thirsts for the stage

After 20 years on stage, Baroque music diva wants to try jazz music, theater acting

Soprano Im Sun-hae poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at cafe Jeffrey in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul on April 7. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)
Soprano Im Sun-hae poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at cafe Jeffrey in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul on April 7. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, last year was still a major milestone for soprano Im Sun-hae who celebrated her two decadelong career.

Since making her debut with conductor Philippe Herreweghe in Antwerp, Belgium in 1999, Im, 45, has been leading a singing career around the globe for more than 20 years.

“Who knew this would happen? I had not known that I would debut in Europe, sing for more than 20 years,” Im said during a recent interview with The Korea Herald in southern Seoul.

The prolonged virus crisis restricted her from holding large celebratory performances to mark the 20th debut anniversary. Instead, the pandemic led her to think about a “reset.”

“As a musician, I nowadays feel threatened about the existence of my job itself,” the virtuoso soprano said. “The classical music scene is one of the most pandemic-hit areas. We were not ready for this at all. We were not prepared for the online streaming era.”

“But then, I always come to the conclusion that I should enjoy the moment. It is impossible to promise a faraway future. After the COVID-19, each stage is a blessed memory for me,” Im said.

As most of her European engagements were canceled, Im performed mainly in Korea last year. She went onstage with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in March, performed at the Tongyeong International Music Festival and also recorded an album of children’s songs with tenor John No.

She also returned to starring in the musical “Phantom” in Korea for the third time since its premiere here in 2015.
 
Im Sun-hae features in the musical “Phantom” as soprano Christine Daae. (EMK Musical Company)
Im Sun-hae features in the musical “Phantom” as soprano Christine Daae. (EMK Musical Company)

In the Korean-language version of the licensed musical, Im plays the innocent, gifted soprano Christine Daae. Similar to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit musical “The Phantom of the Opera,” the musical is based on Gaston Leroux’s eponymous novel, set in the 19th century Paris Opera House.

Im says it will likely be the last season she plays the role of Daae.

“I might be getting too old to play an innocent 16-year-old girl,” Im said. “I have to give the chance to younger, aspiring sopranos. This role is really for sopranos who want to begin their musical careers.”

But Im still hopes to continue performing in musicals.

“I really want to do a Leonard Bernstein musical, for instance ‘West Side Story.’ Bernstein musicals cast opera singers. Bernstein, a composer and a conductor who led the New York Philharmonic, is a genius. His music reaches out to the wider audience while being musically perfect,” she said.

The celebrated musician also has her sights set on working on jazz music one day, hoping not to limit herself to a particular genre. Though jazz music and Baroque music seem to be the opposite of each other at first, Im insists that the two genres share the core element of improvisation.

“In Baroque music, there is improvisation based on core codes. Jazz music, as widely known, is all about improvisation. You can improvise with someone you share the inspirations with. There is also the groove, too. Baroque music and jazz music are both essentially about dancing,” she said.

Though more passionate than ever about music, Im thinks about what her life will be like when she stops singing. She dreads the day, yet she knows that the day will certainly come.

“For the first 10 or 15 years, I thought about doing the things that I could not do as a soprano, like going outside without covering my neck. There are many limitations that come with this job. I cannot speak a lot or go to cold places without worrying about catching a cold,” Im said.

“But now, after 20 years, I want to sing for as long as I can. It is a miracle to have a 20-year singing career,” she said. “But one day, I will not be singing any more. If I could, I want to act in a play. Performing arts is all I know. I am always thirsty for the stage. The musical ‘Phantom’ led me to think about acting.”

For now, Im plans to stick to singing, as long as she can.

“Compared to 20 years ago when I made my European debut, more Korean artists are leading successful music careers in Europe. So much has changed over the years. To perform with artists like them, I should do my best,” she said.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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