'Queen Min' Looking to Jazz Up Her Classical Repertoire

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'Queen Min' Looking to Jazz Up Her Classical Repertoire

If Kim Won-jung had her way, the sleek interior of the modern cafe Plastic II would be replaced with the dust and darkness of a gothic church, the grand, old kind found in a distant country such as Georgia. The Korean-American soprano would be singing "Ava Maria," building from a simple melody to its full glory. Her voice would conduct a vision of a young girl, beginning with her kneeling in prayer.

"I see the shots and I hear the music. It's in my head," Kim said, back in the reality of the hip cafe. The scene described by the classical music-trained artist - she prefers being called an artist to a singer, or even a musician - is a music video waiting to be made.

"Art is dying," Kim said. "The only reason art is alive and makes sense is film," she added, framing her sights with the thumb and pointer finger of both hands.

"It's true in music too. People want to see music, not just hear it," she said. Now a New Yorker, Kim was back in Korea recently to put on a concert for KBS and to promote her first solo album, "Between the Note."

Kim's big break in Korea came in 1998. She starred as Queen Min in the musical "The Last Empress." When "The Last Empress" went to Broadway, Kim helped lift Korea into the international spotlight. The musical "did great things for me," she said. But in Korea, she became typecast as a musical actress.

She is trying to break free of that limitation, and make it as an Asian in the wider world. Her lyrical expressions continue as she explains, "In the department store, there are tons of clothing. In the world, there are people who like my voice and my type. They will find me. I can't do anything else but be me."

Classical music purists may pass by her new album, but fans of crossover music will be intrigued. From the opening notes of the first track, "Lascia Ch'io Pianga" from the opera "Rinaldo," the album has jazz overtones. "Voi che Sapete," from the opera "The Marriage of Figaro," is also driven by a piano with a jazz arrangement.

"I can't be a jazz singer," Kim said. "I'm a classical singer and I love jazz. I want to put my name more in contemporary music."

Kim's musical career began on the piano. Performing made her nervous. When she turned 20, she began singing, and felt a calm. "I feel happy when I'm singing, like I can do anything."

Not as famous as Korea's highly regarded soprano, Jo Sumi, Kim likes to think of herself as just starting out. And the new roles are piling up.

A member of the adoption agency Holt Children's Services saw Kim in concert and asked her to be their first U.S. ambassador. Kim eagerly accepted, and will be fund-raising for a proposed education center.

Her latest project is with Continuum, a group founded by fellow Julliard alumni and professors. The group travels to European countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan to search out living composers whose works are challenging or beautiful, but have been overlooked.

She is not daunted by the technical limitations of her voice, but knows she stands at the outskirts of the classical scene. Inspired by Cuban music, Brazilian pop and jazz, she has been taking her voice and using it to explore other genres. Although some reviews of her new album have been less than stellar, but Kim, a successful changeling, says, "D plus V equals R. Dream vividly, it becomes reality."

by Joe Yong-hee

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