By Erica Miner
After garnering kudos and winning fans from her debut portraying Oscar last season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball at San Diego Opera, Korean-American soprano Kathleen Kim returns as the power-hungry Chiang Ch’ing, aka Madame Mao, in this season’s John Adams drama Nixon in China. Here, Kim discusses her deep love of opera, the challenges and rewards of singing true-to-life characters, and the roles she loves most.
EM: Was Oscar fun to do?
KK: Yes. I do that role a lot. Actually after this I have to do another Oscar. [Laughs]
EM:Where else have you done Nixon in China?
KK: The first time was in Chicago, with Chicago Opera Theatre. After that I did it at the Met, then BBC proms, semi-staged. This is my fourth.
EM: So you know the role by now.
KK: [Laughs] Oh yes.
EM: When did you first want to sing opera?
KK: I grew up in Korea. When I was a child in the children’s chorus, for the National Broadcast Company, I was on TV every Sunday, singing, and I loved it. I’ve never stopped singing since then. I trained as a classical singer in school. Then I came to the States, to the Manhattan School of Music.
EM: That must have been quite a change for you. New York is not an easy place to live, even if you grow up in the States.
KK: New York is a special place, as you know. It was new and exciting. I lived with friends, so it wasn’t too bad.
EM: How did you do transition from choral to solo singing?
KK: In Korea I saw Rigoletto, my first opera. I just fell in love with it. At Manhattan School there wasn’t much opportunity to do opera. I was young, and it was very competitive. I saw many operas at the Met, and after I graduated with my Masters I did so many auditions. Finally I was accepted as a chorus member in a small opera company in New Jersey. Somehow I got the part of the first boy spirit in Magic Flute. That was my first ever opera experience.
EM: Starting with Mozart. Not so bad.
KK: [Laughs] Yes. After that, more auditioning, then I got into Chicago Opera Young Arts Program. After that my career took off.
EM: Did you have a mentor to guide you, to help to get over that hump of getting into professional opera singing?
KK: I met my Korean teacher, Fa Park, when I was very young. He was very important for me. He taught me the most important basic techniques of singing and helped me fix my major problems and bad habits. After that, all the experiences, all the stages where I sang, have been my mentors. I worked with many famous voice teachers and coaches. Every one helped me a lot.
EM: Tell me about your character, Madame Mao, or Chiang Ch’ing. It’s a very different role from Oscar.
KK: [Laughs] Very different.
EM: How was it for you to learn that after doing Oscar, and to sing John Adams versus Verdi?
KK: This role of Madame Mao is very special for me. It was one of my first major roles I learned completely and performed. I was able to do it at the Met, because when I was doing it in Chicago, John Adams came to see it, and at the Met he conducted it. When I learned it the first time it was very hard and it took me a long time. [Laughs] If you see the score the tempo changes, like, almost every two measures, and you need full concentration. I don’t have perfect pitch, so some of the intervals are very hard. When I heard it for the first time I thought, “I don’t think I can do it.” [Laughs] But after I listened to it with orchestra and everybody, I just fell in love with this piece. From beginning to end there’s not a single part you can miss. I think it’s a masterpiece, all the parts. The chorus part is especially important. Whenever I hear the opening of the chorus it gives me goose bumps.
EM: I’ve read that you have a special aria in the second act.
KK: Have you heard it? Once you hear it, it will stick in your head. For a long time. [Laughs] It requires so many high notes, not just high notes, but screaming high notes. So many words, not very pretty singing. John Adams told me that when he was writing it he was thinking about the Queen of the Night. This one is not as high but I do have a high D. The whole tessitura is very high and intense, especially my first note. It starts with anger. She’s very angry and scary, screaming at the dancers. I need all my energy, all the emotions, I have to give everything. It’s completely different from singing Oscar.
EM: It’s also in English, not an easy language to sing.
KK: No, it’s not, compared to Italian, but it’s just so beautiful. In Act Three I show a different part of Madame Mao. She’s known as a person responsible for killing so many people during the Chinese cultural revolution, but she was also a woman, and she wanted to be loved by Mao. That’s what Act Three is about, thinking and talking about our past and what we have done. She sings a different type of music, very beautiful, very melodic. It’s an amazing role. I love singing it.
EM: It sounds like you explore many different aspects of her character, from angry to loving to being honorable and very needy.
KK: Yes, all the human emotions. With Oscar I cannot show so many. First of all I have to play a boy [Laughs] so that’s very difficult. And he’s more like a king’s best buddy, young and very naïve. It’s fun to play, but I also love singing roles with more emotions.
EM: What is it like for you to bring to life a real person from recent history that happened before you were born, compared to, say, Oscar?
KK: I think in a way it’s easier to play a living person, because I have a source to create her image. I read a novel about Madame Mao, and thanks to YouTube I could see her actual trial. With Oscar I have to create a fictional character.
EM: What about vocally?
KK: Oscar is not an easy role. It has high, sustained notes, and you need the volume to sing with ensembles. It requires a more specific voice than Madame Mao.
EM: What’s going on emotionally and character wise?
KK: As the wife of Mao Tse-Tung, everybody listens to me. I speak according to this red book. So, just obey me. [Laughs]
EM: Interesting that he actually writes that aria for that character.
KK: It’s the end of Act Two, and it finishes with a high note and the chorus, and the last words are, “the book.” It’s very strong. I remember counting the number of times I say those two words. It’s more than 40.
EM: Just listen and obey. No doubt whatsoever. How would you relate her character to Pat Nixon, who was meek by comparison?
KK: Madame Mao is in charge because her husband gave her power. She obeys him but also wants to prove herself to him. It’s very important to play the role of his wife, but she doesn’t want to be just a housewife, she wants to be needed by him, to have the support and status of the Communist Party. And she has to have the power to survive.
EM: Of the roles you’ve sung so far, which are your favorites, and which would you like to sing that you haven’t yet sung?
KK: My favorite role has been Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s so fun to sing. I’ve only done one production so far, but I loved it. It’s incredible music, and drama and acting. I’d love to do it more. My roles have been very specific. I want to play a real woman, not a crazy one like Madame Mao [Laughs]… Or a doll. More of the emotional characters, everyday people.
EM: Really? Olympia seems like such a fun role.
KK: It is, but I’m interested in doing something more dramatic, more serious - Gilda, Juliette, the Bel canto roles like La Sonnambula.
EM: Now there’s a role you can sink your teeth into! Is there something you’d like to add before we wrap up?
KK: There’s a story that happened to me at the opera once. The person who was in charge of scheduling wanted to call me to the stage, so he went down to the switchboard and asked, “Could you please announce for Kathleen Kim to call the rehearsal department?” The switchboard person said, “You mean the one who sings Madame Mao? I saw her on YouTube. She seems really scary. I need to meet her.” [Laughs] I’m not that mean, I’m a really nice person.
EM: Isn’t that one of the great things about Opera, to get up on stage and portray a character that’s so completely different from your own, and then fool people?
EM: Kathleen, thank you, this has been wonderful. I wish you all the luck in Nixon and anything you do in the future. What’s coming up for you next after San Diego?
KK: I’m going to Brussels to do another Oscar.
EM: Clearly it’s time for you to start spreading your wings.
KK: Thank you so much.
EM: It’s my pleasure.
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at: [email protected]