Noted countertenor scales new heights
“My songs are supposed to give my audience peace,” the popular operatic singer said. “They would be very uncomfortable if they had to see me cringe on stage to squeeze out such high notes.”
Mr. Jung, currently the only “popera castrato” (as it says on his name card) in Korea, is one of the rare countertenors who have an extended upper vocal range. His singing voice is different from that of female divas, but also noticeably distinguishable from the vocal ranges of most of his male contemporaries.
Although he recognized that his vocal talent was different from others, Mr. Jung said he wasn’t aware of how to use it until about five years ago when he was taken under the wing of a professor of opera at Seoul National University.
The professor in question, Kim In-hye, describes Mr. Jung’s voice as “a rare sound near perfection,” and while these days he practices alone, Ms. Kim originally helped him to “polish” his voice in order to reproduce the resonant, mystical sounds of the castrati, popular back in the 18th century. Then, male church singers sang soprano parts as the Catholic church forbade women from singing in church.
Mr. Jung grew up in a Christian family and sang in the church choir. He also took violin lessons and went on to study opera singing technique at college where he was considered a tenor. However, he sometimes sang in a higher range, mostly he said, to tease female friends trying hard to hit soprano’s notes. For Mr. Jung, singing a few keys higher than female singers came easy.
His humor seems to come just as easy. “I once had fun at a Toronto subway station where I stood on one side of a corner and sang,” he said remembering an incident while he was studying in Canada. “People would come to where I was standing and then turn away assuming that a beautiful lady had just left after finishing singing.”
“But it was me singing,” he continued. “Then they would look at each other as if to ask, ‘where did the singing come from?’ They never imagined that a man could sing like that.”
His career as a popera countertenor kicked off when he won a talent show in the United States organized by a Seoul-based newspaper. At the contest, he sang “In a Flower Garden” by Korean falsetto singer Jo Gwan-woo, two keys higher than the already high-pitched original. The audience loved his rendition and his performance led to many concert deals. Having gained fame abroad, the popera singer decide to reach out to the Korean public. He was recently cast as Raoule in the Korean production of the “Phantom of the Opera” and last year won the Angel Voice for One World award given by the Altamura/Caruso Foundation based in New York.
Mr. Jung has also come up with a novel way of promoting himself, given the usual Korean mores ― he doesn’t. He refuses to name the schools he went to, his age or where he grew up. His reason, he says, is simple ― he wants to be heard and judged only through his songs.
“Korea is an easy place for you to become stereotyped once you find out someone’s age or the school he went to,” Mr. Jung said adding that the use of the word “castrato” is already making some think that he is feminine in real life as well.
“I think this means I have built up quite an image already,” he said.
by Lee Min-a
Jung Se-hun’s concerts titled “The Memory of Christmas” started yesterday evening and will be held until this coming Sunday at the Jeongmiso Theater, Daehangno Admission ranges from 30,000 won to 40,000 won ($40). For more information, call: (02) 3672-3001.