Talking with singers: Ah Young HongInterview
Soprano Ah Young Hong has up her sleeve impressive roles like Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea), Morgana (Alcina), and Gilda (Rigoletto); yet she’s also made a significant impression as an interpreter of new and brand-new music. This season, she sings two new productions of Michael Hersch’s monodrama On the Threshold of Winter in Chicago and Salt Lake City, and she’ll release the debut recording of Hersch’s song cycle a breath upwards. In the spring, she’ll take Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments - along with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja - to the Ojai Festival, UC Berkeley, and Aldeburgh.
In a great chat, Hong talks about her trip from piano to pre-med to singing, and being a true advocate for the music she performs.
What drove you to a professional career in singing?
Singing rather happened quite accidentally. My first instrument was piano for 14 years. I knew I couldn’t produce the kind of sound I imagined in my head and heart so I focused on pre-med instead. It’s a good segue, isn’t it?
There, I accidentally stumbled upon choral singing for the very first time. Singing was the most fascinating feeling. I continued voice lessons despite my first voice teacher telling me to never sing as a professional. I’m sure I sounded like a tortured animal at the time. Regardless, I had to keep going.
Having a career in singing seemed ludicrous to everyone, including me, but because it felt so satisfying to produce the kind of energy I felt inside me all along, I kept going. Career or no career, I just wanted to keep singing.
What do you know now about the singing career that you wish you knew 10 years ago?
Honestly, I still don’t think I know anything about this career. My focus is purely on the music. I’m afraid I’m terrible at giving advice about the career. Just do what you love - never mind your bills aren’t paid!
Something about focusing on the music has made the business much more palatable. I don’t even have an agent. Yet, I have a beautiful concert season year after year. Some concerts pay handsomely, but others are out of pure love of the music. Along this journey, I meet other fascinating musicians and a very natural networking develops. Nothing is forced. I’m afraid I have been behaving the same way for the last 20 years.
What do you find unique about the process of premiering new works, as opposed to interpreting more standard repertoire?
It is the same process. I used to think premiering works by a living composer was different, somehow much more special. It’s not different at all. The luxury of asking a ton of questions is not there for Brahms or Monteverdi, however, I still ask the questions. The answers are somewhere in the score, same as the living composers. I give my all to the composer and their music. The incredible feeling of allowing their music to flow through me… it is a unique experience every time.
How do you think young singers can carve out a career amid a competitive industry like opera?
I have often thought about advertisement. Could I really endorse a diet soda even though I think it has a strange taste? How about if it was the local Italian restaurant’s pumpkin sacchetti? I take my visiting colleagues and friends to this restaurant and after I describe in detail that specific dish, they are dying to taste it. I feel the same way about music.
I can’t endorse just any music. I have to believe in the music and the composer, both living and dead. And when one believes in the music, it’s the most beautiful connection between composer and performer and the third party, the audience. That passion is undeniably addictive for everyone involved.
Young singers need to find that connection early on. That connection will give them incentive to find work or even create work for themselves because they believe in the product so much they will sacrifice everything to have it available for the audience. Don’t wait for someone to give you a role. Make it happen yourself because you simply cannot wait.
Besides your career as a singer, what intellectual pursuits and what hobbies and passions interest you?
I used to love to read. I would still enjoy it now but I have a 9 year old daughter and a 7 year old son as well as a studio of 20 students who keep me quite busy. I used to read books by Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Dumas, and Vonnegut without coming up for air. Now I run around with my kids to soccer, foot paths, and playgrounds. I attend a lot of student concerts and projects.
Some of my favorite things to do is attend composer’s recitals as well as art exhibits. I listen to a lot of piano music: Weissenberg, Richter, Trifonov, and Sokolov. I guess I have a heart of a Russian pianist. I enjoy art, poetry, and just thinking about life. Some of my favorite moments are on footpaths, trains or planes - almost always when I am traveling to a performance location. I ache for a moment to slow down and just think about life. That is when I can read a line of some poetry over and over again and daydream… Music is always flowing through my body as I dream. It’s as easy, necessary, and fulfilling as breathing.