By Chris S. Nishiwaki
Northwest Asian Weekly
No matter how lyrics are sung or what language they are sung in, there is one sure thing: baritone David Won is a rising star in the international opera world. Won, who came from South Korea, has overcome language barriers on multiple occasions. Each time, he has persevered, and it has molded his career.
He played a role in the world premiere run of “Amelia” by Stephen Wadsworth at the Seattle Opera last week. The show closed on May 22 at McCaw Hall. The baritone performed dual roles, a Vietnamese character and a doctor.
Won’s father was a celebrated opera singer and exposed his son to the genre at a young age. Won recalled falling in love with opera when he was eight or nine years old when his father took him to see Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The tragic Italian opera ends with Rigoletto’s daughter dying in his arms, sacrificing herself for her love, the Duke.
Language was a barrier, but Won was not deterred.
“I wasn’t able to understand the opera, but at the end, I was sobbing. I remember asking, ‘Daddy, why did she have to die?’ It was so strong and powerful, it touched my heart.”
When he was 15 years old, Won moved with his father from Seoul to Tulsa, Okla., where his father pursued a degree in divinity at Oral Roberts University. Won’s mother and sister followed them six months later. Won spoke little English.
“It was very hard,” Won said of the move. “I didn’t have friends. I was lonely. Middle school kids were not generous. They made fun of me because I didn’t speak English.
“I was homesick. I wrote pages and pages of letters to my friends. I had huge arguments with my father.”
It was during those arguments that his father taught him the value of perseverance, a value he has applied throughout his career.
A year and a half later, Won learned what he dubbed “communicative English.” He became more active in sports, chiefly water polo and soccer, and he made friends more easily. At about the same time, he learned that he had a talent for singing and thrived in music classes at Jenks High School, outside of Tulsa.
After high school, he spurned a Stanford business education. He enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, choosing among numerous music schools, to pursue a career in opera.
“My parent’s opinion was to follow my heart,” Won said.
After attending the Manhattan School of Music, he trained at the Eastman School of Music and Julliard’s graduate programs. Eventually, he was accepted to the prestigious Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in Manhattan. The three-year program includes performing with the Metropolitan Opera.
“The Met was the turning point in my life,” Won said. “You get to see the best opera singers in the world. You get to perform with the best opera singers in the world.”
His experience with the Met led to multiple roles around the world, including his Seattle Opera debut earlier this year. He performed the role of Ford in Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
Seattle Opera’s production of “Amelia” presented yet another language barrier for Won, who also sings opera in French, German, and Italian. It was the first time he had to sing in Vietnamese, a language that was originally foreign to Won.
Wadsworth, the writer and director of “Amelia,” decided to cast Won for the role four years ago. Wadsworth sent Won to studio recordings of his parts in “Amelia” so that he could learn the music. Because the production was a world premiere, there were no live recordings of the opera for Won to study, including the dramatic delivery. Won persevered.
“You have to prepare yourself musically and dramatically in the same way,” Won said. “As long as you know the language and know your character, and if you have the heart, the music will speak for itself.”
Won concedes that many directors will not cast him for roles because his ethnicity clashes with the Western opera aesthetic. That was not an issue at the Seattle Opera. He credits Wadsworth and Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins for casting him for “Falstaff” and “Amelia.”
“Someone like [Jenkins] has a vision, a clear idea of what he wants,” Won said. “He’s very specific about every detail.”
His goal is to sing the title role in “Rigoletto” and move audiences in the way he was moved when he was a youth. This time, language will not be a barrier. ♦
Chris S. Nishiwaki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.