By Carol Ann Peterson
Imagine being invited by a world-renowned opera legend to move to a country where you don’t speak the language.
Would you hesitate? Or embrace the opportunity?
This is how the powerful and sonorous baritone Kihun Yoon, a native of Seoul, South Korea, answers the question. “I first met Plácido Domingo in Verona at the 2013 Operalia Competition. When we first spoke, Maestro Domingo told me that I was using my vocal skill in a very dangerous way, and if I continued, I could be shortening my singing career.”
Maestro Domingo encouraged Kihun to preserve his voice and invited him to join the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program (YAP) in L.A. “We couldn’t meet for some time because I lived in Germany and Maestro was traveling all over the world.” When they later reconnected, the maestro again invited Kihun to join one of his training programs in either Los Angeles, Valencia, Spain or Washington, D.C. Even with his lack of English, Kihun chose the City of Angels.
As a youth, Kihun took to music and sports. He loved playing the violin, drum, accordion and guitar and also developed an interest in cars. Among the many ways he made ends meet was being a bodyguard for José Carreras when Carreras was performing in South Korea.
No one in Kihun’s family was musical, and they did not recognize his talent. And now? “Every day my parents say, ‘We cannot believe it! You didn’t study much, but now you are this opera singer on stage, whom people pay money to see!’”
By age 24, Kihun was singing in a church choir. That’s when everything changed. His choir director asked him to sing a solo and then afterwards encouraged Kihun to sing for the classical community with his “big voice.” That night, Kihun couldn’t sleep. He began imagining a life in music. The next day he asked the choir director to help him kick off his operatic journey.
Along the way, Kihun met the lovely and charming HyunJung Choi, now his wife, who joined us for our interview. Kihun and HyunJung met at Hanyang University while Kihun was pursuing his master’s degree in voice and HyunJung was an undergrad studying piano and accompaniment. Kihun was the TA for her accompaniment class. HyunJung and the other musical students knew of Kihun, as he was already famous as the only individual ever to win both premier voice competitions in South Korea. The talented couple has worked extensively together in the U.S. and Germany. Last year they flew back to Seoul for their wedding and performed a recital.
Kihun shares a tender memory of his mainstage debut at LA Opera in 2014, as the Servant in Thais. “I was really nervous. Following the dress rehearsal, Maestro Domingo came into my dressing room and asked, ‘Are you okay? How are you feeling? You sing well!’” Kihun remembers, “I sang only two words, but Maestro took the time to give me power and encouragement. He was so kind and supportive. I love him as a human being.”
As we talked about his operatic training, Kihun said that although he had studied voice in school, his training truly began in Los Angeles – the vocal coachings, the stage experiences, the music with James Conlon. “One of the best parts of being a young artist is working with and observing professional singers. When you are in rehearsals or on stage for productions, you see how the singers warm up and how they prepare for performance.”
The summer of 2016 has seen Kihun perform at Wolf Trap in the U.S. premiere of Florian Gassmann’s 1769 comedy L’Opera Seria, in the role of Delirio, the librettist. For LAO’s 2016-17 season, he will cover Macbeth for Plácido Domingo. And look for him as Horemhab in Akhnaten and Sciarrone in Tosca.
This leads me to ask what his dream role is. “Scarpia!”
After he wraps up YAP, Kihun and HyunJung plan to relocate to Oldenburg, Germany, to join the Oldenburg State Theatre.
The fine folks at Oldenburg can look forward to Kihun’s now firm command of English.