In celebration of Opera Australia’s latest production of Carmen opening this week and finally being able to witness the masterful voice of Lee Yonghoon again, here is the interview I did with him last year during the Turandot season. Definitely one of the most surreal and awe-inspiring interviewer moments for me, he’s such an incredible artist.
I’m not sure anyone will ever sing Nessun Dorma better than Lee Yonghoon in that production.
Originally posted on The AU Review
Yonghoon Lee has established himself as a leading lirico-spinto tenor, performing all over the world and amazing audiences with his incredible voice. He is currently performing in Sydney as the romantically determined lead Calaf in Opera Australia’s latest production of Turandot.
AU Review Arts Editor Kat Czornij caught up with Lee during his stay in Sydney to discuss the production, life as an international opera singer, and whether he thinks he could survive Turandot’s three riddles.
You have performed with Opera Australia once before, as Cavaradossi in Tosca (2013). What is it like returning to Sydney to perform as Calaf in Turandot?
It’s always a big pleasure to work with a great opera company, so I’m really happy to work at the Sydney Opera House again.
You have had such a significant career performing all over the world. How do productions vary between countries?
They do vary, but these days even if you are in a country and the director is from another country, then the production will be different. For example in Italy if they invited a German director the production would be different. The German director needs to consider what country they are performing in though- so in Italy they love traditional operas, but in Germany they like to make different modern productions. For me personally I love the traditional productions for opera, because we love traditional things- that’s where you can find the true beauty. I’m lucky to work with really great directors in Sydney on really traditional and beautiful productions.
With all this travelling how do you make sure you keep both your voice and body performance ready?
It’s challenging, and really not easy. Right now I am booked until 2019. We keep travelling all over the world, this week Paris, this week New York, something like that. We have to fight with the jetlag. The flight really makes our vocal chords very dry, but there is no magic- there’s is only one way we can cope with it. We have to know very well and very deeply about what we are doing. The role, the music and technically for the voice, then we can keep working with the situation. In the 19th Century there were no flights so they had to travel on boats, which means they had plenty of time to rest. But now there is no moment or break, so we have to rest and take care as much as we can.
Do you have a special method of getting yourself in character for each role?
I study a lot about the historical background of each role. The original text, like a novel, I search for all these sorts of things. If we are not fully ready vocally and as an artist then our name will just disappear in a few years. But if we work hard and study hard every time then we can develop.
What do you think of Calaf’s character in Turandot?
If we talk about the history of Turandot, it’s not really understandable. The character also, is a little bit strange. I always study my character and with Calaf it is very strong. He just forgets everything for love. He doesn’t care about his father even though they couldn’t meet for a long time, he doesn’t care about Liu, he just doesn’t care about anything after he meets Turandot. He is eyeless. It’s not normal, even if she’s pretty! Of course Calaf is not Yonghoon Lee, but normally I have to think of my family! But in this opera he doesn’t care about anything except love, and a beautiful woman. He’s very selfish.
Turandot is quite unique as an opera in that the lead characters finally get to have a happily ever after (apart from poor Liu of course)! Is it exciting to have this rare happy ending, or is it more exciting to perform with a dramatic tragic end?
Most operas have a process and development for the story. Like in Carmen’s Act One its very peaceful, Act Two something’s happened, Act Three gets worse and then finally they kill each other. It has a process. But in Turandot from the beginning he doesn’t care! After he sees Turandot he just fell in love with her, in his aria Vincero!- I will win!- he’s a very strong character! And then finally he wins. So in this mood, a happy ending is a good match. We can let it have the happy ending.
Do you think Puccini meant for it to be happy in the end?
In Puccini there is no happy endings, Madame Butterfly, Tosca… But what Puccini did, he also make Liu die. So we can guess, now it is a time to give him a love. But Puccini did only compose until Liu’s funeral, so he did have his tragic end.
Do you have a favourite scene or aria to perform in any opera?
If I had to pick one I love Carmen. I love the final scene, it’s so beautiful.
In Korea there is of course a more traditional style of opera, with pansori and gosu. What do you think of performing an opera that combines this traditional style with the Western style?
It’s possible, and could be beautiful, but the gosu- it’s better with the Pansori. I think so anyway. It’s like if you have a great suit with sneakers, it’s possible but not a perfect look!
And finally, do you think you would be able to solve Turandot’s three riddles?
No. Definitely I will die, on the first question!