Baritone Kyu Won Han says the best piece of advice he can give to opera newcomers is: read up.
“When you go for the first time, you don’t know what they’re saying and you’re too busy looking at the stage and the subtitles … it’s too busy,” he says. “If you read about (the show) before you go, then you can enjoy it much more.”
Han should know about breaking into new scenes. The kind of opera he does is rooted in Western culture, but the 43-year-old baritone is part of a slew of talent that has come out of Asia in recent decades. Originally from Seoul, Han mentions that the South Korean love of karaoke makes the population particularly musical. And the amount of churches means that many singers get their starts in choirs.
However, to make the jump from singing at karaoke to singing on stage, Han knew he needed to train outside of Asia. He enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in 1992.
Finding a good teacher is important for any budding singer, but Han says that’s just the beginning.
You need to “try to have as many experiences as possible — competitions and auditions. And while at school, I advise people to go to as many concerts as possible.”
He says going to concerts is important because you can learn so much from, and be motivated by, seeing your mentors perform live.
“When I saw Luciano Pavarotti in an actual performance for the first time — and that was the only time I saw him — just listening to his voice blew my mind,” he says.
While Asian audiences have always appreciated opera, Han says it’s important to immerse yourself in the art if you want to join the ranks of the great singers.
“Opera is a Western art and it’s always good to go to where the form of the art originated,” he says, giving a more local example: “If you want to learn kabuki, it makes sense to go to Japan.”
His debut came in 1999 in a production of “Don Giovanni” at the San Francisco Opera, in which he played the role of Masetto. Looking back, he says it was the most important experience in his career as it led to other roles.
Han has learned that while opera requires a great deal of vocal prowess, it is also a challenge to try to evoke a character’s emotions and personality. In preparation for the roles, he follows his own advice to newbies by studying the material diligently.
“I try to read the text a lot and try to understand why (the character) says things,” Han says. “I try to understand the relationship between his character and the other characters, and sometimes I can find many things from the reactions of other characters.”
As far as roles go, the baritone cites the titular character of Orpheus in Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” as his most challenging.
“The character itself is half-human, half-god and understanding him was a little bit tricky,” he says. “He’s superhuman, but also very human.”
However, the singer draws the line at method acting.
“Even if I’m very much connected to the role on the stage, most of the characters in operas aren’t so real,” he says. “So if I’m too connected to the role off the stage, then it’s kind of a problem to have a normal life (outside of opera).”
When asked who he would choose if given the chance to perform alongside anyone in the world of opera, Han laughs and quickly asks, “Someone who’s still alive?”
“I like old singers like Mario Del Monaco, Titta Ruffo and Robert Merrill,” he says. “You don’t see that kind of singing anymore and I really love that kind of old style … so if I could have the chance, I’d really love to study with those old singers and great masters.”
When it comes to other forms of music, however, Han admits that you’d be more likely to hear him at karaoke attempting pop rock group Maroon 5’s tune “Moves Like Jagger” rather than anything coming out of La Scala.
Han comes to Japan next month to take part in a “Romantic Baritone Recital” with support from soprano Junko Saito and pianist Jun Enomoto.
Kyu Won Han’s “Romantic Baritone Recital” takes place at Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 5 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,500; 03-3267-9990). For more information, visit www.asahi-hall.jp/hamarikyu.