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Commentary

Kwangchul Youn [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of The Royal Opera]
29 Apr 2009

Kwangchul Youn makes his long-awaited debut at the Royal Opera House, London.

Youn made his Bayreuth debut in 1996, only six years after coming to Europe. He sang the Nightwatchman in Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Kwangchul Youn makes his long overdue first appearance at the Royal Opera House, London.

An Interview with Anne Ozorio

Above: Kwangchul Youn [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of The Royal Opera]

 

“Only two entrances”, he says, “but it is very still, almost a capella”. He’s modest, for the part is critical to the structure of the opera. It has finely nuanced depths, compressed in a short space of time. Making a debut in the hallowed Festspielhaus is always a challenge, but to do so with such a role, exposed and alone, takes character as well as talent.

Since then, Youn has appeared regularly at Bayreuth. “It’s like my second home”, he says “after so many years, I know the house, the sound, it’s so nice”. The depth and authority of Youn’s voice lends itself well to Wagner bass roles. He’s sung Hunding, King Marke, Landgrave Hermann, Titurel, and in 2008, Gurnemanz in Bayreuth. This may be his first King Heinrich der Vogler in London, but it’s a role he’s sung many times before. Indeed, he’s come fresh from singing it at the Staatsoper in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim. “What Barenboim does with this music is fantastic”, says Youn. “He has so much experience working with singers, he understands how the singing works. He knows so much about Wagner. I love working with him”. Youn has worked with most of the leading Wagner conductors today, singing Titurel in the seminal Parsifal in 2004 at Bayreuth with Pierre Boulez.

The Royal Opera House Lohengrin is a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production created for the house in 1977. Visually, it’s lushly beautiful. Youn’s costume is heavily embroidered, with raised figures of kings and saints, stitched in gold standing out in high relief. What a pity the audience won’t be able to see such detail ! This is a costume which “acts” on its own accord, as stiff and formal as the pageantry of royal splendour. After that glorious introduction to Act Three, scene 3, Youn’s entrance will be spectacular. “Wie fühl ich stolz mein Herz entbrannt, find ich in jedem deutschen Land so kräftig reichen Heerverband!”. The enemy is outclassed, even before the battle starts.

Kwangchul Youn can create roles of magnificent gravitas even though he is not tall by the standards of many basses. He is living proof that stature has little to do with size. When he sings, he has such conviction that he commands respect. I first saw Youn as Fasolt in Kupfer’s Das Rheingold at the Liceu, Barcelona. He embodied the part with such conviction that I was convinced he was a giant. Vocal authority counts for much more than physical type.

Indeed, perceptive directors work with the voice, rather than external appearance. Some observers thought that Youn’s King Heinrich was one of the best things about the recent Lohengrin in Berlin a few weeks ago, conducted by Barenboim and directed by Stefan Herheim. Youn sang Gurnemanz in Herheim’s Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2008. Herheim spends a lot of time with the singers, developing their parts with them. “He can think about roles in different ways. He has unusual ideas, but they come from the score. He’s very aware of orchestration and how details like oboe or clarinet passages work to create the music.”

In Berlin this October, Youn will be singing Fiesco in a new production of Simon Boccanega, with Barenboim, directed by Federico Tiezzi. Verdi and Mozart naturally provide rich material for Youn’s voice. He’s sung nearly all the bass repertoire, including Aida, Don Carlos, Luisa Miller, Don Giovanni, Il Nozze de Figaro, Elektra, Les Troyens, Tosca, Fidelio and Robert le Diable. His range also extends from Schoenberg (Gurrelieder) to bel canto and baroque : he’s recorded Reinhard Keiser’s Croesus with René Jacobs and D’Albert’s Tiefland. He has long standing relationships with most of the leading houses in Europe, including Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Barcelona, Venice and Paris. In the United States, he’s performed several times at the Metropolitan Opera. London is now catching up.

Even in this age when air travel and telecommunications draw the world closer, commuting between Europe, North America and Youn’s native Korea is time consuming. Yet Korea is a country where there’s great interest in classical music. Many people play an instrument, or listen to recordings. Korean musicians work in orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In 1995, Plácido Domingo went to Seoul to sing with Youn, who’d won Domingo’s singing competition some years before. It was a gala event and must have been appreciated in a nation that takes its music seriously.

Anne Ozorio

Lohengrin runs at the Royal Opera House, London from 27 April to 16th May 2009. The cast includes Johan Botha, Edith Haller, Petra Lang, Falk Struckmann. Semyon Bychov conducts, Elijah Moshinsky directs.

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