The following interview took place in the administrative offices of the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation of this interview is gratefully acknowledged.
[Soprano Yunah Lee; resized image of a publicity photograph.]
Wm: What were your earliest memories of music?
YL: I grew up in South Korea. When I was a child, the only place that I was exposed to Western classical music was in my Protestant Church.
In the 1980s there was a major push in South Korea to emulate Western ideals, including learning and excelling in the Western music. Learning to play musical instruments was considered important for a person’s musical training, so I played piano and learned violin.
I sang in the church choir and had a “choir voice”, but at age 15 I decided I wanted to be a professional singer. I stopped violin and piano lessons and took voice lessons instead.
Wm: How did you become interested in opera?
YL: I had not known about Opera really until I went to college in Seoul. My dream had been just to become a professional musician until then.
The first opera performance I attended was Verdi’s “La Traviata”, which was so amazing to me.
Wm: You attended the music program at Hangyang University in Seoul. Why did you choose that university and what did you learn there?
YL: I was attracted to that university because it had a strong music department founded by a well known composer of art songs, Kim Yun Joon. The department specialized in art songs and opera. The music program is still doing well.
I chose the college because I wanted to study with a particular teacher who had studied at Juilliard in the 1970s.
My major at Hangyang was art song rather than opera. There, I learned the basics of music and was taught the discipline required for musical performance.
Wm: What were the circumstances that caused you to leave Korea for the United States?
YL: My dream had been to continue my vocal studies in the United States. I had taken part in a Korean music camp run by Daniel Ferro, who had taught soprano Kathleen Battle.
He suggested that I go to New England Conservatory of Music to work with bass-baritone Edward Zambara, who had taught Denyce Graves, Ruth Falcon and Cheryl Studer.
[Below: Yunah Lee as the Countess Almaviva in a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Kentucky Opera; edited image of a J. David Levy photograph, courtesy of Yunah Lee.]
Wm: Your studies in Boston was your introduction to the United States and to American culture. What are your thoughts about these new experiences.
YL: I had a great time spending my first year in the United States in Boston. It was was the right place for me to learn English and learn about American culture.
Being in a master’s program in Boston proved to be low pressure and fun. I think it would have been a great shock if my first introduction to America had been New York City.
Wm: What did you learn from Edward Zambara?
YL: I studied with Zambara in Boston for one year. When Zambara was offered a faculty position at Juilliard, I went with him. Zambara identified my voice as a lyric soprano. He believed in creating a five-year plan for each singer he taught, and to work slowly on breathing and basic technique.
[Below: Papageno (Kyle Pfortmller, left) has his first encounter with Pamina (Yunah Lee, right) in the 2012 Opera Carolina production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of the Yunah Lee.]
Wm: Then you transferred to Juilliard. What was that experience like?
YL: In New York City, there is so much pressure, but, because Juilliard is located in Lincoln Center, it was an important place not just to study voice but to gain practical experience.
One of my teachers was John Beeson, who coached at both Juilliard and at the New York City Opera [NYCO]. He suggested that I audition for a small role in the United States premiere of Mayuzumi’s opera “Kinkakuji”, produced at NYCO in 1995. I played the character Uiko, with one page of singing. This was my professional stage debut.
Wm: Joseph Colaneri, who you worked with at NYCO is now the Glimmerglass Music Director and conductor of the performances of “Madama Butterfly” in which you star. Have you had a special rapport with him over the past 17 years?
YL: I considered NYCO as the start of my career, and the first company with which I had a “home company” relationship.
I took part in a 21-performance NYCO tour in which I sang Mimi in “La Boheme”, conducted by Colaneri. That experience taught me how to manage what I needed for a profession that travels constantly.
Wm: You took part in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program in the Summer of 1996. Describe that experience.
YL: I was cast as Adina in an English language production of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love”.
[Below: Adina (Yunah Lee, left) flirts with the Sergeant Belcore (Ted Christopher, right); edited image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph, courtesy of the Merola Young Artists Program.]
What I look back on most vividly is that originally I was to cover Anna Netrebko as Adina, but because of travel considerations and other logistical problems the Merola program directors cast me as Adina and Anna as the cover.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the only time that Netrebko ever covered someone.
Wm: Your career is associated with the role of Butterfly. Do you feel a connection with the character of Butterfly?
YL: Dramatically, I understand her. I grew up in a similar culture, in which it was considered better to die than live in dishonor.
My father was born in Osaka, Japan. Japan and Korea traditionally have similar attitudes about death being preferable to dishonor.
[Below: Cio-Cio San (Yunah Lee, right) and her son, Sorrow in the Robert Carsen production of “Madama Butterfly” at the De Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of Yumah Lee.]
You know that Korea has the highest suicide rate of all nations. One of our recent presidents took his own life because he was dishonored.
I can understand the culture so well and understand Cio-Cio San so well and can play her so naturally. I feel hugely lucky that there is this role on which I could build my career.
Wm: How early did you start singing Puccini and how early did you take on the role of Butterfly?
YL: I sang the title role in “Suor Angelica” in school. My voice teacher, Zambara, had suggested that I resist agreeing to perform Butterfly as long as possible, because, since I’m Asian with a lyric voice, once I started singing it, I would be offered it all the time.
I waited until my early 30s, now I’ve sung the role more than 100 times.
It’s an exhausting role and can easily damage the voice. But, fortunately, it has had no adverse impact on me. It fits me like a glove.
[Below: Cio-Cio San (Yunah Lee, right, seated on floor) is overjoyed at the return of the USS Abraham Lincoln as Suzuki (Kristen Choi, left) and her son, Sorrow (Louis McKinny, center) scatter flower petals around the house; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: Obviously, now you are being offered Butterfly all the time. Would you prefer to sing other roles instead of it.
YL: Yes, I wish companies would recognize that I sing many other roles.
My voice always had a warm lyric sound. But when I was younger, I sang repertoire that included Mozart, Haydn and Handel, in which the voice had to move well.
Although Puccini always was easy for me, it’s healthier for my voice to mix roles.
I think many singers allow themselves to be relegated to a narrow “micro-fach”. I don’t believe that just because a voice is deemed perfect for a given group of roles that that is all that the singer should agree to perform.
Wm: What roles do you wish that companies would offer you?
YL: I recently sang Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni”, Pamina in “The Magic Flute” and the Countess in “Marriage of Figaro”. I will be adding Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in Seoul this December.
In Korea, not only do I sing Puccini roles, but I am offered to sing many other roles too, about which I’m very glad. Last seaon, I sang my first Verdi role, Leonora in “Il Trovatore”, also in Seoul. It was quite a wonderful experience for me.
[Below: Yunah Lee as Mimi at the Korea National Opera; resized image, based on a production photograph.]
What I would like to do in the future would include both the title roles of Massenet’s “Manon and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, each of which would be for the first time.
I would also like to return to performing Micaela in Bizet’s “Carmen”, Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” and two heroines of Gounod operas, Marguerite in “Faust” and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”.
Eventually I want to add the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” and either the roles of Ilia or Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, the title roles of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”, the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”.
I would like to create a new role, sometime in my career. That would be a great experience. Foreign-born singers usually don’t get much of a chance in new American operas.
Wm: As a Korean -born singer who spends most of her time in the United States, what are your current thoughts about the two cultures.
YL: At this point in my life, I’ve lived longer in the United States than I did in Seoul. I’m married to an American. We honor both cultures in our house, but my lifestyle and culture is closer to the American than the Korean.
Wm: Thank you for a great interview!