Soprano Juyeon Song’s complete Tristan und Isolde and opera recital of scenes by Wagner and Strauss came as a complete revelation to me, since I had never heard of her previously. Checking on YouTube, I found two other performances, both of them “live,” that also show the power of her voice: “Ebben, lontano” from Catalani’s La Wally and the final scene from Madama Butterfly. In both of these, one can witness as well as hear the immense power of her voice as well as the consummate artistry that lies behind it.
Since I am sure that most of my readers know little or nothing of her prior to these recordings, I asked her to do an email interview with me and she generously agreed.
Art Music Lounge: Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to operatic singing in the first place?
Juyeon Song: Both my parents liked opera. My mom ran a private music school, and I sang since I was six years old.
AML: I recall you mentioning to me that, when in college, you sang the Queen of the Night’s arias, as 99% of young coloraturas do. But what I was wondering was, were you drawn to the drama behind the arias even then, or were you more concerned with just getting the notes out properly?
JS: We studied Mozart and his operas. The drama behind it was also important to learn.
AML: How did you establish yourself in the early part of your career? Did you sing in Korea?
JS: I sang in concert but not in a full production.
AML: So when did you move into singing heavier lyric roles?
JS: When I was working with Madama Butterfly with Claude, he thought I could develop to be a dramatic soprano. Butterfly is a dramatic lyric role, in my opinion.
AML: I read online that you were the long-time partner of former Heldentenor Claude Heater, and you shared with me that it was he who expanded your voice to its present size. I’m curious as to what kind of exercises he gave you in order to accomplish this amazing feat?
JS: His primary technique was “Open Throat with Proper Breathing, use a relaxed larynx all the time.” Your voice has to be fresh always, and by opening your throat consistently plus with diaphragmmatic breathing, your vocal chords are not strained. Also, he emphasized working out regularly to increase your stamina. Each vocalization with different intervals had to be practiced with the exact size, interval while you are also open your throat.
AML: I’m also wondering if it was Mr. Heater who instilled the dramatic aspect of Wagner in you, or if this was just something that came from inside of you? Clearly, this is unusual…most Wagnerian sopranos are just concerned with getting through the music and don’t even bother with interpretation.
JS: Yes, he was the first person who introduced me to Wagner. I never dreamed of singing his operas before in my life. Claude trained me, and other students, intensively every day when we worked with him. We had to study the roles very well, so we become the character. Every day I sang my Wagner roles. He taught us that if you cannot get through the entire opera, don’t bother studying the arias from the opera. I sang an entire opera everyday, then took a 1-2 days break. The more and more I sang, my voice stayed opened, and I had more energy.
AML: When and where did you sing your first Wagner role onstage?
JS: It was in Germany in a concert version. I sang the entire first act of Tanhhäuser as Venus, then the second act of Tristan und Isolde.
AML: A friend of mine who bought your opera recital disc told me that he was very impressed but “couldn’t quite believe” that all this voice was coming from the person pictured on the album cover. You told me that you’ve had problems convincing opera managers and bookers that you can handle Wagner for the same reason. But I’m sure that audiences who have seen you in person can attest to your voice’s carrying power?
JS: Yes, audiences were very surprised in live performances to hear how my voice carries through in spite of my body size. At first, most people didn’t think my voice could handle singing Wagnerian roles, but then their mind was changed after hearing me.
What Claude taught us was that our voice has to carry through the heavy orchestra with the right amount of overtones. Especially in Wagner’s music, the orchestra is not an accompaniment of the voice. Orchestra and voice are one instrument.
AML: There were several interpretive details in your performance of Isolde that really struck me, particularly in the last act. When you come ashore and see the dying Tristan, you almost sounded like a woman who was about to lose her mind. I found that to be very powerful and, in fact, unique among Isolde’s I have heard. How did you get the idea to try that?
JS: By studying the role, I became Isolde. I believe in deep true love, like the way Tristan and Isolde shared themselves. They both completed each other and became one soul. Knowing that I naturally felt deeply what Isolde must have felt, I could believe that she could die with a broken heart after getting to Tristan, who just passed away after longing and yearning so much for her. Can you imagine losing part of you, your soulmate and love of your life, after that many days of separation, then finally get to him and he is gone? She saw his soul leave his body in her dream state (another reality) when she sang the Liebestod. She wanted to be united with him in heaven, finally with no restrictions. but as free as she could be.
AML: On your recital disc, you sang the music of all three Brünnhildes. Do you have all three of those roles in your repertoire?
JS: Yes, I studied all three Brünnhildes from the Ring Cycle.
AML: I was also impressed by your final scene from Salome. That’s the most dramatically sung performance I’ve heard since Teresa Stratas’ video recording from the 1970s, but of course Stratas had a modest-sized voice and could not perform the role onstage. Is Salome one of your repertoire roles, and have you ever sung it onstage?
JS: No, I haven’t, but I hope some day I will.
AML: I’m just wondering what other, non-Wagner roles you have in your repertoire. Perhaps Elektra? Or Turandot?
JS: I do sing Turandot along with Madama Butterfly, Abigaille, Aida, Salome, Norma (working on that now). I used to sing Zelina, Liù, Mimi, Queen of the Night and Pamina.
AML: Just as a personal note, I would love to hear you sing Gluck’s Alceste or Leonore in Fidelio. Do you sing those roles as well?
JS: I studied Fidelio but not Alceste. I will look into it. Thanks for suggesting it!
AML: I’m so sorry that the Coronavirus has curtailed your singing activities, but some pretty good vaccines are on the way and we may be reopening things on a limited basis by May of next year. Have you been able to give any vocal recitals in the meantime, and if not, do you think you can do so next spring if things go well?
JS: In the later part of 2021, I am planning to make more recordings with a German orchestra under Maestro Robert Reimer’s direction, and also we will make recordings with piano. I’m planning on a piano recital during which I will play part of a Tristan und Isolde film in which Claude played Tristan. We plan to have a well-known German actor narrate the story of Tristan und Isolde in the program to help audiences to understand the opera better. We’re also planning on multiple big projects in 2022. The Isolde Project will go on.
AML: Well, you certainly have me as a supporter, and I’m someone who heard Birgit Nilsson in person. I can’t think of a single really good Brünnhilde since Jeannine Altmeyer sang those roles in the late 1970s-early ‘80s, and I wish you luck!
JS: She is one of my favorites. I am very much inspired by her singing. Thank you so much for your interest and support!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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