So Young, Artist
An Interview with Soprano So Young Park
By Tom Lady
We Meet Again
“When I first met you, I had no idea how I could get through it,” she says. “But now I did it and it went well!”
It’s a Friday in late October. We sidle up to the counter opposite the bar in Kendall’s. Somewhere outside, the shadow of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looms above, a constant reminder that at some point this interview will be over and my interview subject will have to get back to work.
So Young Park, a second-year member of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, is referring to the 21 performances across four productions she’s done since I first interviewed her that last Friday in March (has it really been seven months?).
This would include stints at Opera Colorado and Houston Grand Opera followed by three months at the Glimmerglass Festival. And then, thanks to a talent manager she landed in April just before her epic journey began, So Young spent September at Hawaii Opera in Honolulu. And after Hawaii? This YAP landed in L.A. for all of a day before jetting off to New York to audition for Wolf Trap in the summer of 2016.
Welcome to the Elite Sisterhood
Across all those productions, So Young sang just one role: the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the same role she’ll be singing in LA Opera’s upcoming production in early 2016. Yes, one of our very own Young Artists is part of an elite sisterhood who can say they’ve mastered one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire.
“The Queen of the Night is a challenging role, but I love to sing it.” To keep her language skills fresh, So Young has the language settings on both her iPhone and Siri set to German.
Just listening to all this flying around makes me feel worn out from jetlag. Is jetlag an issue for her? "Not at all," she says. "I can sleep whenever I want." And how does she kill those long hours spent in the air? “The long plane rides are the perfect place to learn music because you can’t do much else.” So Young brushes up on her recitals using the piano app on her iPad and studying the text.
The Education of So Young
So Young is originally from the seaside city of Pusan, Korea's second largest city. With a homemaker mother and businessman father, So Young is the oldest of three and the only one in her family in the arts. “I sang maybe at age eight or nine. When I was really young, I learned singing. But it wasn’t opera. It was kid’s songs. My voice teacher at the time asked me to do some competitions….I started winning and it was fun. Then she had me go to art middle school, and art high school….My life has been about singing, watching singing.”
So Young was in high school when she saw her first opera, Tosca. “It was my first experience seeing an opera. It is such a dark story and I really did not understand what was going on. They did not include supertitles, which made it harder for me to understand. I just thought opera was weird.” She laughs.
The medium won her over in college. She traveled four hours north to the capital of Seoul where she enrolled in Seoul National University. That’s where she first “met” the Queen. How do you learn a role like that? “My voice teacher at the University recommended that I sing the aria during my sophomore year. I believe that I was too young to realize how difficult an aria it is, which may have been a blessing. I spent a lot of time in the practice room working on the aria and supplemented my studies with YouTube clips, especially with [German soprano] Diana Damrau. She is my role model for this part.”
Heading West to YAP
Toward the end of her time at Seoul National U., So Young landed her first operatic role, Gilda, in a school production of Rigoletto. “This was my first time translating an entire opera, so I knew what I was saying and what everyone else was saying. We had translation books, which allowed me to find a greater appreciation for opera, the characters and my role.”
After getting her bachelor’s in vocal performance, So Young researched masters programs in America and applied to 11 schools. “I applied to every single famous school, the top 10.” The New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston offered her a full scholarship. She ended up getting both her Master’s and Artist’s Diploma at NEC. She finished that up in the spring of 2014. After NEC, she combed the country for young artist programs and used the same theory as she did when applying for American schools. That fall, she joined LA Opera’s prestigious ranks of Young Artists.
As a Young Artist, So Young has run through a gamut of trainings to further evolve her ability to portray a character, not just sing it well. This includes improv classes. “It was really hard because it's really fast. It’s the opposite of a lot of operatic training, where we have months in advance to prepare for a performance. Here, we make it all up on the spot. Even the pianist is making it up...it’s thrilling! I never had this type of training until I entered the LA Opera Young Artist Program. It definitely has helped improve my English skills." And now? Check out the sidebar in BRAVO issue 41 (“Watch the Young Artist Improv(e)” on page 7) for So Young’s improv-ing a pedicure.
Singing with a Maestro
The main highlight of 2014 was a concert in Korea with Maestro Placido Domingo. Get this: He invited her. “It was huge, huge, huge concert. We had three days’ rehearsal.” And while they didn’t have much time to rehearse every song, the conductor didn’t know anything about it. “I skipped a measure because I never heard this orchestration….But it went beautifully!” It started with an email from Maestro Domingo’s assistant asking if So Young would like to join Placido. “Like, are you asking me? Really?!” They gave her a repertoire she had to learn in three weeks, excerpts like a La Traviata duet with Placido, as well as a trio from Die Fledermaus, two Queen of the Night solo arias and Adele’s aria from Die Fledermouse. West Side Story was also part of the program.
Life after Flute
Even though she’s not in Moby-Dick or Norma, So Young comes here every day to practice with Paul Curran, the Scottish opera director who’s currently visiting LA Opera for a week (he’ll be back in January). “This is the only class where I’ve got goosebumps from the teacher. He told us how to approach our music. Not who to sing, not how to act. But how to approach the music.” For example, So Young was singing Ophelia’s mad scene. Regarding the line about the dove, Paul asked her, “Why does Ophelia talk about a dove? What does a dove mean? Why does the dove fly away?” And so on. Paul leads So Young and the others into a deep-dive about the meaning of the words so they think about the music in a whole different way.
As for what's on tap post Flute, So Young's looking forward to portraying Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. "Zerbinetta has a crazy-long 15-minute aria," she laughs.
So how do you prepare for a long aria? “I go to the gym regularly," she says. "It’s all about physical and mental stamina. For singing, your brain has to plan before you sing. To prepare for this, I practice a lot, but I also build up my physical stamina so that my brain and my body could handle anything.”