Monday, 16 December 2013

Jihoon Kim Recital, Royal Opera House

Jihoon Kim is shining proof that the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, London, develops singers into complete artists. rich, resonant bass is much admired. During his two years as a Jette Parker Young Artist in 2011/13 he was cast in a wide range of roles at the Royal Opera House, from Alessio in Bellini’s La sonnambula and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème to the Ghost of Hector in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. After completing the Programme, he was offered a one year contract as a Royal Opera principal, covering more than 50 performances in the current season - in fact, when he sings Stimme der Wächter on the first night of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten it will be his 100th performance on the main stage. 

In Verdi Les vêpres sicilennes, Kim’s Robert was so distinctive that  James Sohre wrote in Opera Today that “As one would expect at Covent Garden, all of the minor roles were polished and poised, but I particularly enjoyed Jihoon Kim as Robert. The ROH is right to place such confidence in him and to nurture a performer of such accomplishment and real individuality. His rolling, dark bass surely has a bright future”. Watching the HD broadcast of that production, I noticed how often Director Stefan Herheim used Kim at many critical points in the drama, far more often than the actual singing part required. Kim appeared many times in close-ups because he has presence, even when he was not singing.  

Particpants in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme have considerable professional experience even before they join the scheme. The programme polishes these skills so they learn all aspects of their profession. Coaching includes languages, musical style, interpretation, stagecraft, acting and movement. There is more to being an opera singer than singing alone. Because the programme focuses on practical performance skills, Young Artists give individual recitals, as well as participating in main house productions. Jihoon Kim’s recital in the Paul Hamlyn Hall in the Royal Opera House in December 2013was unique, however, because he sang Korean Art Song, a genre almost unknown in the west. 


Korean Art song or Gagok are songs composed in the Western form. Borrowing the melody of hymns from the end of the 19th century Gagok began in the 1920s, when Korea was occupied by Japan, and continues to flourish today. In South Korea, classical music is cherished and music education standards very high. The songs describe mountains, woodlands and the simple life of Korean peasants, celebrating national culture and identity, much as Grieg and Dvořák did in Europe. The lyricism in the music of Gagok expresses nostalgia, but also a more subtle sensibility. “Deep in the woodland” writes the poet Donghwan Kim, set by composer Wonshik Lim in 1942, “a spring never seen or found trickles secretly……I take a sip, returning home with pleasure, for the spring will remain my own, secretly”

“Another aspect of Korean Art Song”, says Kim, “is that it mainly consists of a lyrical melody (cantilena), which does not require a trained vocalization, to be sung easily by the general public.” Kim is modest, though, for some of these songs are technically sophisticated and benefit from his sensitivity to musical form. Dongsu Shin’s Dear Mountain (1983) is a particularly beautiful song, allowing Kim to showcase the range of colours in his voice. In Hoon Byeon’s Pollack (1952), fast paced, ever-changing rhythms suggest the movement of a fish frolicking in the sea before it gets caught in a net. Kim sang with agile flexibility and freshness, quite unusual in his fach. The fish is “ripped to shreds, my body may disappear but my name will remain, as Pollack, Pollack, I will remain in this world”. There is humour in the song, but also bitter irony. The very fact that Kim was able to express these complex feelings to an audience who did not speak Korean shows how well he can communicate : a valuable skill in opera. Kim could convey meaning so well that many in the audience could follow the spirit of the songs, such as the drinking song, without needing translations at all.

Kim sang some songs accompanied by pianist Jean-Paul Pruna. Pruna, who was a member of the Young Artists Programme in 2010/12, postponed his return to Holland for his current engagement with Reisoper in order to take part. Kim also built the programme to include performances on traditional Korean instruments, in order to show how modern art song connected to traditional form. Hyelim Kim played taegŭm, a transverse bamboo flute. She played Chʻŏngsŏnggok, a melody used in Korean court circles. It was transposed an octave higher in parts to maximize the distinctive buzzing articulation of the membrane within the instrument, which acts as a kind of sympathetic resonator. 

Hyunsu Song played the haegŭm, a two-stringed bowed string instrument. A percussion ensemble joined Kim and the other soloists for larger pieces, such as the three variations of Arirang. The Koreans in the audience started to clap in rhythm with the percussive pulse, underlining the changing shape and form. For westerners, who aren’t used to participating in classical music, this was quite an education. 

For an encore, Kim sang a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a baby. Although he was so young, he responded to the emotion in the song and used to weep. “Maybe it’s the song that made me become a singer”, he said. The ability to feel and express emotion is perhaps fundamental to the art of song. Kim sang the song first sotto voce, barely above a whisper, conveying the idea of a song heard as distant memory. Then he sang it again with confidence. We could hear the boy grown into a man with a bright future. I was very moved. 

As an extra theatrical touch, Kim wore a hanbok, a spectacular silk costume, loaned by Somssimyoungga, the only luxury traditional company designing bespoke Korean garments. Kim thinks as an opera artist, who understands the importance of visual images. Kim also has exceptional organization skills, putting together the whole programme and people involved on his own initiative. Great attention to detail : at one stage, the bow of the haegŭm brushed too close to a microphone. Without missing a note, Kim bent over and fixed things. 

This was a unique recital, from an unusually promising young singer who has justified the faith the Royal Opera House has placed in him.

See the full review HERE in Opera Today.Photos copyright  Marco Godoy

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