Raise the Curtain! Introducing South Korean baritone Joo Won Kang

For people who unfamiliar with the term, what is a baritone?

There are a lot of different ranges of voices, some can sing high, or low. Nowadays there’s considered to be three categories, a tenor, who can sing very high, a baritone, who sings in their mid-range and a bass, who sings really low. I think it’s a privilege being a baritone as you are in the middle, so we can play either really charming, wonderful characters as well as the mean, villainous characters.

At what point did you decide to make opera your career?

Actually, it was kind of late. I went to America to get my master’s degree in music, wishing to become a teacher. I studied atthe Manhattan School of Music in New York.  There were so many opportunitiesto audition there that I couldn’t resist, even though I didn’t even know whether to pursuesinging as a career or not.  I just kept doing more and more auditions and here I am!

I know you have two gorgeous kids. How do youjuggle parenthood and your career? Has parenthood  changed or affected your career?

The unique thing about opera singers is that we get to travel to a lot of places, but that also means we have to be away from our families. That is the hardest part. But nowadays, with technology, with social media and face-timing, they are saving my life - but it’s still not easy! When I’m home and not working I try to be a full-time parent. I make breakfast, take them to school and that’s just my job.

What advice would you give to anyone entering the industry?

You have to be open-minded about so many things, like different cultures and learning new languages.  Even understanding a little bit of another language helps a lot! But the most important thing is to be a nice person because you’re going to meet a lot of people. 

Do you feel like the opera business has changed over the years?

Yes, I feel it has changed a lot, but also a lot of the qualities have stayed the same. The main change to the industry has come with the live broadcasting of opera.When the MetropolitanOpera started broadcasting in HD, I thought it was going to kill opera, because opera is about going to the opera house to feel the exhilaration of a live performance. But I when I actually went to one of the broadcasts, it was a wonderful experience! But it still doesn’t change the quality of listening to a live performance.

You made your debut in Wexford as Corrado in ‘Maria de Rudenz’ by Donizetti in 2016. How does Wexford opera compare to some of the other opera companies you have worked with before?

Wexford is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Before I came here I had no idea how Wexford worked, because it’s not a large city, but it is wonderful. The opera I was performing in wasn’t a well known Donizetti opera, but it was a great privilege to discover this unusual repertoire. The best thing about Wexford’s opera is meeting some great people.

You first came to Wexford in 2016.  That same year, Director Rodula Gaitanou, who‘s directing ‘L’oracolo’, was directing another production of at Wexford, ‘Vanessa’ by Samuel Barber.   Did you see it?  Did you have a chance to meet her then?

I saw the opera, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her. ‘Vanessa’ became one of my favourite modern operas. She was just a fantastic director and I still remember the scenery and the snow. It was just a beautiful, beautiful opera.  So when I found out I was working with Rodula this year I was so excited.

Your character in ‘L’oracolo’ Cim-Fen is quite a nasty character. Can you tell me how you approach playing a villain? 

As I’m a baritone I’ve played a lot of villains before, but this one is different. Usually in opera, the villains have purpose and reasons for their nasty actions. I worked with Rodula to make my character more of a psychopath and a sociopath.  He’s not afraid of killing people and I feel like he almost enjoys it.

What can the audience expect to take from the Double Bill of ‘L’oracolo’ and ‘Mala vita’?

As you know they are written in the verismo style of opera, which is about showing the reflection of ordinary life.  It’s not about fantasy or an extravagant lifestyle. These operas show the real life of ordinary people. I am an immigrant in America and these two operas show immigrants struggling .  America is a big land, but there are small tiny societies where it’s almost like a different world, with a unique feel. Watching it we might think, ‘this is happening somewhere’.  It’s an actual reflection of life.

What’s the atmosphere like amongst the performers on stage?

Oh, it’s really good! It’s fantastic! People assume all opera singers are serious, but we’re not! We make a lot of jokes and it’s really fun. Since we are doing crazy, dark roles it’s not fun to be that person in real life. We get a lot of ideas from rehearsals from the singers and of course Rodula.

How do you keep your voice in shape?

Many opera singers have their routine to keep their voice fresh. I try not to do anything crazy like drink to much or eat spicy food. It’s all about balance and trying not to speak to much, or even not to scream at my kids *laughs*. I just try to be a normal person because if I think too much about it, gives me a lot of stress and I try to avoid that.

You sing in German, English, French, Korean, Italian and Spanish--all with fine diction, what language do you prefer to perform in?

Ah! I think Italian is my favourite, because I love how the language uses their vowels, which makes it easy to sing. I also love singing in French because the language is gorgeous. I actually love speaking in English too as I speak it mostly and it has a great quality to it.

What is it about opera that touches your soul?

I think it’s definitely about the human voice; the beauty of it. It’s so unique. Like one tiny soprano makes a huge voice and how it cuts through the opera house. It’s amazing! You can hear the emotion through their voice which is wonderful.

Joo Won Kang performs sings the role of Cim-Fen in L’oracolo by Franco Leoni, 19, 25, 28, 31 October and 3 November.