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Exclusive Interview with Yunah Lee

January 07, 2013

  • date
    January 07, 2013
  • article type
    Press
  • category
    Opera Carolina News

Exclusive Interview with Yunah Lee

The excellent Opera Carolina company is presenting Mozart's beloved masterpiece Die Zauberflöte in Charlotte, NC, on January 19, 24, and 27, 2013... Opera Lively has started the coverage of the event by interviewing full lyric soprano Yunah Lee (for the second time after our brief encounter with her last year for her Cio-Cio San in Charlotte - read it [here]) who will be singing the role of Pamina. This writer has attended her Madama Butterfly in person and can vouch for the high quality of her singing and acting. Das Opernglas magazine has referred to her performance of her signature role in Butterfly as "thoroughly captivating... utterly convincing in mood and presentation… a commanding and touching performance."

Opera Lively - We’ve talked last year on the occasion of your excellent Cio-Cio San with Opera Carolina. Now you are back, and again it is a visually striking production with set design by Jun Kaneko. What can you tell us regarding how this production is shaping up?

Yunah Lee- Well, I just got here three days ago, so I had a first day of rehearsal yesterday, but I knew about this production because it was premiered in San Francisco with the same set and designer, and I also worked with him last year - the Butterfly was also his design - so, as far as I know he is a very respected artist. His pieces are displayed in many museums downtown in Charlotte. His artistry is just visually, like you said, strikingly beautiful! The color use is fantastic. I saw more pictures yesterday. He is using more than a hundred illustrations and about seven visual projections. It's going to be mind-blowing. I'm expecting that it will be something that you will never forget. That's how it was last year. I have done many Butterflies before, but that one was the most visually striking I've seen. The Magic Flute might be even more so, because the opera itself can be seen as a comedy for children like a fairy tale, so he probably has used even more of his imaginative talent. I'm very excited.

OL - Nice! Are there vocal challenges in singing the role of Pamina, or is it a relatively easy sing?

YL - It is much shorter than Madama Butterfly, maybe one fifth of the length that I have to sing. Emotionally it is not hard, meaning, nobody dies in the opera, it's not a realistic story; it's lighter, mostly. It talks about virtue, darkness, and goodness. There is a moral and religious aspect, but it is not emotionally exhausting. It is relatively easy to approach, for me.

OL - Have you sought inspiration in the singing of any notable Paminas of the past? Was there any other method you’ve used for your research and preparation?

YL - Yes, it's the same procedure for me, and I think for other people too. You have the score, you know the historical background, you know about the composer's style, and you approach the language - although this was originally written in German and we're doing it in English, which is very reasonable, because it has a lot of dialogue originally written for the German people, and unless you follow each dialogue it is not as funny as it should be. So, we are doing it in English and it should be easier for the audience. Vocally, musically, we study with the coaches and I listen to other singers, and pay attention to their styles and phrasing. Especially regarding the diction, I try to listen to original native speakers, but this time we are doing it in English and we are doing a little text change, so I didn't have anybody to listen to, so I'll be my own, yes! [laughs]

OL - So, this production will be sung in English. What are your thoughts about opera in translation? Do you think it is detrimental to the music in any way, in terms of the sounds not matching the composer's intention with the German text?

YL - Sure, I mean, it's always the case, that's why you don't want to translate from the original language. However, this translation, I must say, for my aria, they really did it carefully. They tried to use the most similar vowels on each important note. The phrasing and comas, they really tried to match it. So I do not really see any damage done to the beauty of the opera, or to that aria and the music - most of the time it is very well translated. I really am happy about that.

OL - You sang this role before, I believe, in a concert performance in Michigan, right?

YL - Correct.

OL - And also Dona Elvira in Don Giovanni in three different productions. But you are better known for your Puccini verismo roles which you’ve interpreted literally hundreds of times. Can you please comment on the differences between singing Puccini and singing Mozart?

YL - Oh yes, it's like day and night in terms of styling. Puccini gives you a lot more freedom. My particular voice, my timbre - I have a swelling timbre, which means that I am very natural with the crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing, and longer legato lines because my voice naturally swells and phases out. However with Mozart's music the style is very much in tempo. It is very different, and a lot more strict in terms of tempo. It's like a puzzle. It's an ensemble-rich opera. Nobody has really long arias to go by himself in a solo journey and that kind of thing. It's an ensemble opera. You have to be puzzled in with other people in order to make the beauty that he intended. You can not rely on one person. Casting is very important, to get similar timbre and character from the singers. I have not met all the cast members, but I believe James Meena has carefully selected all of them.

OL - Yes, when there are many ensembles, singers need to be very good musicians so that they are harmonious and don't interfere with each other, right?

YL - Exactly, exactly. We're woven together to show a timely product together. Not one person can take out or stand out, right?

OL - Yes. Now I have a question that is not about this production, but since we do have a Portuguese language section of our website, and I’ve noticed that you’ve performed in a production of Carmen in São Paulo, Brazil, I got curious to see if you have memories of that production to share with us.

YL - I'm originally from Korea, and two of my uncles live in São Paulo. That's how I first went there; I was visiting them. And then my uncle produced a recital for me at the São Pedro Cathedral, and while I was there I was introduced to the leaders of the opera house and I auditioned for this production. I sang Micaëla and they hired me right away so I went back to Brazil for that production. Have you been to São Paulo?

OL - Yes, I have.

YL - So, you know how it is. We're talking about South America. The freedom, and the weather, and the people! The state of their mind is something that we don't see here, [laughs] especially where I live, in New York. The feeling of being relaxed was fantastic! Nobody was really stressed out about anything. Because of that, I must say it was not one of the most organized companies I've ever experienced. I got there, and they actually didn't have to have me there for the first entire week, so I got a break and a paid vacation! I went to Rio de Janeiro and had this little vacation; that would never happen in America because here they want to schedule everything - they know two years in advance who goes to the bathroom and when! So that was very different. I have to say, that experience was something that I will never forget. It's been more than ten years, but I remember every single thing! I made good friends. The people there, they have a heart, it's shaped differently, and the temperature is quite different. [laughs] I miss it a lot!

OL - Was it a good production, musically speaking? Are they on the level of other opera companies in other operatic centers, or do they lag behind?

YL - Yes, yes, they were good. Well, it was a rather young cast. However, the Escamillo with whom I sang, he is now a superstar in the United States. I don't know if you know him, Paulo Szot.

OL - Yes, I do! [Opera Lively has interviewed Paulo Szot (here)].

YL - He was my Escamillo! And he was just starting out! And now he is a superstar, after South Pacific, and singing at the Met... It was a young cast and I was probably a little bit more experienced than they were, but I was also young ten years ago. It was a young production, but a good production. They weren't as seasoned but obviously they had good potential; look at the superstar they've produced out of that! It was a very beautiful theater, I don't know if you know it.

OL - Yes, the Teatro Municipal, in São Paulo, right?

YL - That's right.

OL - It is indeed a very beautiful theater.

YL - Yes, it was lots of fun.

OL - Last time we talked, you expressed the wish to sing Desdemona in Otello, and Manon in both Massenet's and Puccini's operas. Are any of these dreams coming true for you?

YL - Not yet. But I'll be singing my first Trovatore in Korea. It's not official yet but it will be this year. That is not the first Verdi I would have wanted; I wanted to sing Desdemona first, but this Leonora in Il Trovatore, I'm also interested in singing. Regarding Manon, I'm still working on my French repertoire, but with a lot of Butterflies, it hasn't been easy. But I'm singing my second Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro right after this in Virginia, and I'm excited about it. [April 6, 10, 12, 14, 19, 21, 26, 28 - www.vaopera.org ]

OL - What about being back to Charlotte, what are your impressions of Opera Carolina?

YL - It is very professional. I really enjoyed this company last year, and I looked forward to being back here. You go to different regional opera companies and they are very different. A city like Charlotte is not like San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston, however this particular company is a pleasant surprise. The quality of production here is very high. Just the fact that they bring here Jun Kaneko's production says something, you know? It was just done in San Francisco, and San Francisco is number two or three in the U.S. as far as opera companies go, and they are bringing the same production to Charlotte right after that.

I have a great deal of respect for James Meena both as a conductor and as a general director. It is not easy to run an opera company, especially in a smaller city like this, in this economy. But he does it very, very professionally, and the company is very good, bringing very good people and good productions, and making good relationships with all the sponsors here. And they seem happy, and we are happy, we get along well, we get treated well. I'm not just saying this because you are interviewing me while I am in Charlotte. Charlotte has been one of my greatest pleasures, in my career.

OL - I agree with you. It's an amazingly professional company. I'll be there for the opening night and I wish you good luck; hopefully it will be a great production.

YL - Oh yeah. Thank you so much!

OL - Thank you for talking to us.

YL - My pleasure!

By Opera Lively To read the original article, click here.