A third-grade boy dreamed of being a rock singer…seven years later he was hooked on world classics

“I’m happy with that. I gave 100 per cent of what I had, so if I don’t win, if I don’t get a podium (sixth place), that’s fine.”

The Beaux-Arts Concert Hall in Brussels, Belgium, on 2 February. After finishing the last song (Verdi’s ‘Even if I Die’) in the final of the Queen Elizabeth Competition, one of the world’s top three competitions, baritone Kim Tae-han (23) said to Seo Sang-hwa, head of the education and culture team at Opera Studio. His face showed both relief that it was over and confidence that he had done enough.

Two days later, the judges gave the highest score to Kim Tae-han (born in August 2000), the youngest of the 12 finalists. Despite feeling like he had the world at his feet, the young singer’s voice on the other end of the line was surprisingly calm. “I’m both nervous and happy to have won,” he said in a phone interview with The Korea Economic Daily, “but I wasn’t nervous because I’m not self-conscious.”
A combination of talent and hard work

Photo by Yonhap

The final of the Queen Elizabeth Competition was a drama. Before the competition, not many people were paying attention to Kim Tae-han, a newcomer in the midst of world-class singers who “fly and crawl”.

But time was on his side. As the competition progressed, his stock rose. Unlike his competitors, who flaunted their virtuosity, Kim stuck to accurate renditions that stayed true to the original music.

His song selection strategy also helped. He sang four songs in the final: Wagner’s “O my lovely evening star”, Gustav Mahler’s “With burning daggers”, Korngold’s “My longing, my delusion” and Verdi’s “Even if I die”. He chose songs that highlighted his appealing deep voice and musicality.

It also worked to connect with the local audience. Kim sang his last song, Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” in French rather than Italian. “‘Don Carlo’ was sung in French before Italian,” he said, “and the last line means ‘save Flanders,’ and I thought it would be meaningful to sing it in French, given that Flanders is Belgian land (where the Queen Elizabeth Competition is held).” “I usually study not only pitches and time signatures, but also poems and poets (related to the song) to better understand the song,” he adds.

Kim Tae-han, who was once into hard rock and played in a band, started singing in the third grade at the urging of his mother. After studying at Seonhwa Preparatory School, she entered the Seoul National University’s voice department, where she studied with Professor Na Gun-yong. Despite being a purely Korean singer who had never studied abroad, she drew attention with her perfect pronunciation of foreign languages.

Although it was only at the Queen Elizabeth Competition안전놀이터 that he made a name for himself on the world stage, it is no secret that Kim Tae-han is a potential vocalist. Last year, he won special prizes in three international competitions – Viñas, Spain; Stimmen, Germany; and Riccardo Zandonai, Italy – as a precursor to this victory.

“Kim Tae-han is an all-rounder who can perform in any language and any genre,” said Seo. “Not only does he have outstanding talent, but he also has the integrity to constantly strive to make up for his shortcomings.”
Two runners-up and a K-vocal support act
This year’s Queen Elizabeth Competition attracted a record 412 applicants. Of these, three Koreans made it to the final 12. Fifth-placed bass Inho Jung, 32, was praised for his outstanding performance and stage presence.

“I am happy that I was able to pour out all my inspiration and musical expression on such a prestigious stage,” he said, “and I will strive to become a musician who is not ashamed of himself.” Baritone Kwon Kyung-min, who also made it to the final 12, said, “I will continue to challenge myself without fear of failure.”

Kim Tae-han and Jung In-ho are both alumni of the National Opera of Korea’s Opera Studio (KNO Studio). The National Opera of Korea established the KNO Studio programme in 2021 to nurture vocal talents who will take the world stage by storm. In its second year, the programme has exceeded expectations.

KNO Studio selects 20 vocal talents every year. They are taught opera coaching, foreign language vocalisation, script analysis, and acting intensively for six months. The programme also provides them with expertise and skills in opera staging, including opera conducting and directing. Those who excel will have the opportunity to perform in the National Opera of Korea. A scholarship of 1.9 million won per month is a bonus.

The support system for classical music, which focuses on instrumental music such as piano, violin, and cello, has been expanded to include vocal music. “KNO Studio’s support system is similar to K-pop’s ‘star training system,'” said an industry insider. “With a systematic support system in place, the next Cho Soo-mi and the next Kim Tae-han will continue to emerge.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *