For star vocalist, family was instrumental to fameSoprano Shin Young-ok, 50, is the first to admit that talent wasn’t the only thing that brought her fame and fortune.
“Sheer talent is important for an artist but in the end, it is the people supporting that artist that make a career,” Shin told the JoongAng Ilbo.
And with that statement, she spilled story after story about her mother, who sacrificed her life to support her daughter, and her teacher, Claudia Pinza, who would fly halfway around the world to help Shin.
She choked up when taking about her mother, the Korean “tiger mom” who pushed her daughter from an early age to focus on singing. It was because of her mother that Shin entered the KBS Children’s Choir at the age of four as its youngest member. Shin’s mother also managed a strict schedule for her while she was attending Sunhwa Arts High School - an endless cycle involving home, school, lessons and concerts.
More than anything, Shin said that it is the sacrifice of her family and mentors that fuels her to perform and has made her give up many things for the sake of her life in music. She added however, that she has no regrets about choosing music over a “normal” life.
“I just chose. I liked singing better than playing,” she said.
Q. It seems that you stay longer in Korea with each visit.
A. It’s because these days after I perform in Seoul, I also perform in other regions as well. I go wherever there are people who like my singing. Also, because my father lives alone, I tend to come to Korea more often.
Your father must love it when you visit.
Of course. A while ago, our cook grilled some fish and gave one piece each to me and my father but he said that it tasted too fishy and gave his piece to me. Afterwards, I asked the ajumma [middle-aged woman] about it and she said, “He didn’t eat the fish because he wanted you to eat more.” My father is very caring towards me. He watches all my performance DVDs and says things like “Your hair is sticking out in that scene.”
You seem to have a close bond with your father.
He calls me “mother-in-law” because I am constantly calling him, like four or five times a day, even when I’m not in Korea. I call him the minute I wake up, before I even turn the lights on. It’s actually because I am still traumatized from when my mom passed away. She died of liver cancer in 1993 and I was in Germany playing the role of Despina in the opera “Cosi Fan Tutte.” My mother had told the other members of my family not to reveal that she was sick because she thought it might affect my performance. So whenever I called home and asked for her, my sisters and father gave me excuses, saying that she was sleeping or she went to the market. So after she died, it became a sort of paranoia for me. So whenever my father doesn’t pick up the phone, I become quite hysterical.
You must really miss your mother.
I had dreams about her for several years after she passed away. I carry her notebook with me always so I can see her handwriting. She always told me to call this person and that person whenever I visited Korea and she left me their numbers but I was too shy to do so. So she would always call them for me.
[At this point, Shin started crying, the mascara running down her cheeks, and we had to stop the interview for a few minutes.]
I couldn’t remember these things when she was living but after she died, it all came flooding back. She basically sacrificed her life for my sake. Oh, this is why you shouldn’t talk about your mother in interviews.
Your mother was quite strict with you, right?
She was really strict. She always told me that other kids didn’t have the talent or the financial stability but “you have both so you should never be lazy.” She cherished my talent and she gave her all towards my benefit.
Your two sisters must have been envious at some point.
My older sister also studied music [at Ewha Womans University], but from a young age I think I was the better singer and there was some friction between us. But now we talk often and she frequently advises me. Whenever my voice becomes strange, she tapes my performances and sends them to me. That sometimes hurts, but she makes me more aware of my condition.
Your mother’s decision to send you to the U.S. by yourself to study was quite unexpected, from the sound of it.
I thought so, too. In Korea, she didn’t give me five minutes to myself but I think she took the plunge [when Shin was accepted to the Juilliard School in New York]. In a way, it was as if she were giving me away as if I were getting married - only I was marrying music.
Didn’t you ever rebel?
I did. She used to call me constantly when I was in New York - two or three times a day. If I wasn’t home, she would keep calling at 30 minute intervals. But I guess my form of rebellion was merely talking back to her when she called.
If you had a child, would you raise him or her the way your mother raised you?
No. My mother gave me a lot of love but I couldn’t express my love back to her enough, I think. And I realized just how much she loved me only when she passed away. It took a long time. I think it is quite dangerous if your love for your child is excessive.
But in some way, don’t you think that it was because of your mother that you pursued music?
Hmm. I’m not sure. Before my debut, I failed the Metropolitan Opera’s annual National Council auditions twice. After that, I felt very lost and even my mother told me to just rest until I felt ready. I had to take another look at my life. Ever since I was young, I had pursued music within the boundaries set by my mother but I came to realize that music was also my dream. I collected myself again and won the auditions in the end, when I was 29.
You played the role of Gilda in “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1991 when soprano Hong Hei-kyung was too sick to do the second act. It seems that your talent really showed through. You were praised for your performance and top opera houses, including the Bastille Opera in France and the Royal Opera House in the U.K., contacted you to perform. What was that like?
It was more effort than talent. Before my debut, my whole life revolved around practicing to get a clear voice. When people complimented me on my voice, I practiced and practiced, until the words turned into foam in my mouth. If I had a rehearsal at 10 in the morning, I got up at dawn and practiced. Some days, I really felt like quitting.
It doesn’t sound easy.
My teacher at Juilliard, Claudia Pinza, told me to live like a nun because my instrument is my voice. And I’m allergic to alcohol. If I even take a sip of wine, my throat gets all funny. Once, I had a couple of drinks and the next day I started making weird sounds during rehearsal and my teacher asked who had been drinking last night. At first, I was so annoyed. But after a while, I realized that my teacher was right. Even if I eat food that is a bit greasier than what I normally eat, my voice changes. My teacher was strict but she also cared for me a great deal. Even if my lesson fees for her were much less than what she actually deserved, she came to coach me wherever I was - whether it was in New York or France.
Do you have any regrets about living your life solely for music?
You’ve sung with three of the greatest tenors the world has known - Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. What was that like?
Pavarotti was really goofy. In 1993, when he and I performed “L’elisir d’amore” in Japan, he would give me goofy kisses, like 10 times, after the curtain call, when we were waving to the audience. He can be scary in practice but when the other person is nervous, he tries to alleviate the tension.
People say Domingo is the gentleman of the opera world, but Carreras is the real gentleman. During practice, he always comes to me and asks which part I want to try again and which part I am having difficulty with. He is always very considerate of others.
Domingo is the popular one and even I hear myself go “wow” whenever he is around.
Do you ever feel competition with other Korean sopranos including Sumi Jo or Hong Hei-kyung?
No, because the genres we are good at are so different. Sumi is good with high notes and Hei-kyung is strong with lyrical elements. I think people just like to compare us for fun. In 1999, all three of us performed at the Met. We were so proud of each other, that three Korean women were there on stage together.
What matters most to you?
Affection. When you are an artist, you have to choose the form of art you like the most, not short-term profit. The same is true in relationships. Relationships that are based on self-interest, like a company, don’t last long. You have to be affectionate with your friends, even if the fruit of your affection doesn’t ripen right away.
By Lee Do-eun [firstname.lastname@example.org]