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The Opera News Awards: Hei-Kyung Hong
| soprano |

By Louise T. Guinther

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Hong as Mimì, her most frequent Met role, in 2005, with Roberto Aronica (Rodolfo)
© Beatriz Schiller

HEI-KYUNG HONG embodies grace and elegance, both in her wide range of onstage roles and in her personal life as a devoted wife and mother and a proud representative of Korean–American culture.

The soprano, who hails from Kang Won Do, South Korea, was among the first Korean singers to appear on top international stages. “Asians were still marginalized in U.S. society at that time, and explicit discrimination was all around,” she told Korea JoongAng Daily. “I had this feeling I was representing Asian society as a whole, so I wanted to become a formidable soprano who would gain everyone’s respect, regardless of the color of their skin.” In that, she has succeeded, her exquisite singing, committed acting and physical beauty breaking through all barriers. 

In a career spanning four decades, Hong has projected a rare blend of radiance and vulnerability that is ideal for many of opera’s tragic heroines; her paradoxical air of precarious vitality lends these characters a febrile lifeblood that draws audiences fully into her emotional world. Particularly memorable was her Mimì in a transformative Bohème at the Met. I had just seen the same surrounding cast in a performance that came across as dutiful and bland. But with Hong at its center, the whole ensemble came to vibrant life. Hong’s Mimì was lovely in face and figure, tenderly melting in timbre and phrasing, generous with her emotions and devastating in her frailty. Still more striking was the way these qualities seemed to inspire her colleagues to a heightened engagement.

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Hong’s enchanting Liù graced the Met’s Turandot in 2007, with Oren Gradus (Timur) and Andrea Gruber (Turandot)
© Beatriz Schiller
 

The delicate purity of Hong’s singing and the porcelain beauty of her presence give her a natural penchant for the virginal and vulnerable, suiting her well to the likes of Micaela, Gilda and Juliette; but her twinkling eyes, unshakable poise and piquant charm lend themselves equally well to the vivacious and the flirtatious, such as Manon, Despina, Zerlina and Susanna. An air of physical fragility undergirded by moral strength serves her particularly well as Violetta, Pamina and Liù—all vulnerable figures who suffer deeply but are rendered heroic by their willingness to sacrifice for love.

Hong knows firsthand about sacrifices, having placed family above career not only early on, when she gave up star-making offers to care for her young children, but at the height of her fame, when her husband’s battle with cancer led her to withdraw from performing for several seasons. It was a risky move, but thanks to her undiminished vocal excellence, her lasting popularity and her unwavering integrity, she has been welcomed back with open arms by companies and audiences alike.

There is no showing off in a Hong performance: she inhabits her characters quietly, subtly, but with palpitating humanity. Diva mannerisms are bypassed in favor of small but telling gestures; dazzling vocal display gives place to expressive phrasing.

“Singers love to talk about the voice—how to produce it, how to support it, how to breathe,” she told the AP in 1999. “That bores me. I want to talk about the person—what kind of life they had, how many children, what they love, what makes them fill with emotions.” As a result, what makes audiences fill with emotions is Hong herself.  —Louise T. Guinther 



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