The Classical Hallyu

Rain, BoA and their like are not the only singers to be known outside of Korea. In the classical music world, Jo Sumi has long been an international megastar. But there is an up-and-coming collection of Korean singers making their way in the highly competitive world of classical music.

At the recent Maria Callas opera awards in Athens, Koreans were the only male prize-winners. The top prize was not awarded, but second and third, plus two honorable mentions, all went to Koreans. (The female award went to an Irish woman).

From left: Moon Jung-hyun, Yang Tae-joong, Lee Eung-kwang and Heo Jong-hoon. [YONHAP]

From left: Moon Jung-hyun, Yang Tae-joong, Lee Eung-kwang and Heo Jong-hoon. [YONHAP]

The second and third placed Koreans are both, interestingly, based in Germany. I have a spy who sings in the Lubeck Opera chorus in Germany, and he tells me that in a chorus of 28 singers, there are 5 Koreans (all men); plus there’s a Korean soprano who’s on maternity leave.

So what are all these Korean singers doing in Germany? Anecdotal evidence suggests that there’s a strong through-put of graduates from the conservatoires in Korea, and the graduates then flock to Europe and America because although many big towns in Korea have opportunities for singers in concert choirs, there is very little western-style opera.

Two years ago a Korean soprano was a popular, if ultimately unsuccessful, competitor in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition 2005. According to the BBC site

Ha-Young Lee was the fourth Korean entrant to the Competition. All three previous Koreans have been baritones and the first, Dae-San No, won the Lieder prize in 1999.

Lee’s operatic outfits met with the approval of the BBC’s frockwatch commentator:

Ha-Young Lee solved the evening dress at 2.00pm problem in one fell swoop. A tea dress with this season’s favourite handkerchief hemline, hovering between mid-calf and ankle. It was lovely, exactly the right shade of cream for her.

According to the BBC profile of Lee, she moved to – guess where – Germany in late 2005.

Sae Kyung RimUpdate 13 April 2007: Thanks to Mike Smith, PR for the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, for leaving a comment below that there’s a Korean competitor, soprano Sae Kyung Rim (right – picture from BBC site), in the final 25 in this year’s competition. She’ll be performing on 10 and 12 June.

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2 thoughts on “The Classical Hallyu

  1. It is interesting to know that there are that talented Korean singers in classics. With my understanding, there is big Korean community in German who are studying art including music. Main common reason that Korean art students choose German is that the country is relatively cheap to study art. Low tuition is asked with relatively high standard compared to the other countries.

    About 15 years ago, I had an chance to travel Europe as a backpacker and to be offered great hospitality, by accident, to stay art-studying Korean’s house in Berlin for free. There was three ladies, one for literature, one for opera singing and the other for piano. The story of the piano lady became very exciting later on. After her study in German, she was able to moved to very prestigious Russian music institute and she came to suffer from civil war at the time of Russian revolution.

    Most of such a people usually come back to Korea after their study and become a professor (if they are lucky) or a private teacher for example, a private piano instructor. I recommend a movie “호로비츠를 위하여” (For Horowitz, 2006) if you like to understand their life. The movie is just a drama on a lady who followed such a track.

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