So Young Park Owns Queen of the Night

Victoria Looseleaf on November 4, 2019
So Young Park | Credit: Credit: Lanly Le

In any list of operatic showstoppers, surely the Queen of the Night’s rage aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (The vengeance of hell boils in my heart), from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The magic flute) would be near the top. The music, which requires a soprano to repeatedly hit a high F, has also permeated pop culture: The film Eat Pray Love is but one example; you can even hear it in car commercials, such as those for Volvo, and other advertisements.

Coloratura soprano So Young Park, who was born in Pusan, South Korea and is a graduate of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist program, has sung more Queens than she can count. Of course, there have been other prominent roles in her repertory, including that of Gossip in The Ghosts of Versailles, Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro, and Blonde in Los Angeles Opera’s 2017 production of The Abduction of the Seraglio.

So Young Park as Olivia in LA Opera's Tales of Hoffmann | Credit: Ken Howard/LA Opera

Indeed, the 33-year old has been a fairly regular presence at LA Opera, having performed Top Daughter in the 2016 production, Akhnaten and, on very short notice, Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, in 2017. Still, of Park’s performance, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “As Olympia, the mechanical doll that Hoffmann is tricked into believing is his love, So Young Park got by and sang spectacularly.”

But it’s her Queen of the Night that has continually wowed audiences, and L.A. patrons have a chance to see Park in Barrie Kosky’s The Magic Flute this month.

First seen in 2013 and again in 2016, this production is a collaboration with the young British theater company, 1927 (animator Paul Barritt and co-director Suzanne Andrade), Flute returns to LA Opera for six performances beginning Nov. 16.

After a whirlwind trip visiting family in Korea, as well as having performed her signature role in Kosky’s Flute in Macao and Taiwan, Park was in Los Angeles, where I caught up with her by phone between rehearsals.

Was there music in your family, what initially drew you to opera and what musicians have inspired you?

So Young Park | Credit: John Kim

No one does anything with music in my family — I’m the only one. I played piano since I was at a young age — 3 or 4 — because my mom loves music. She never really learned it, but she loves it. She always wanted to learn how to play but she couldn’t, so when I learned something, the first thing was with piano.

At age 4, though, I didn’t really enjoy much playing the piano. It was hard, so my mom was asking me to learn to sing in a kids’ singing group when I was 8 or 9. Then I went to an arts middle school and high school and went to college [in] voice departments. It naturally came out and I was told to sing.

I did my first opera in college in 2009 — Rigoletto. That was fun, and I was singing Gilda in a full production and I wanted to keep doing it. [As for inspiration], there are so many good singers everywhere. In Korea, when I was younger, it was Sumi Jo — she was one of the most famous and I loved her singing. Worldwide I love Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and I actually loved male singers, too — Luciano Pavarotti.

When did you first realize you were a dramatic coloratura?

I don’t even know. I started to sing high notes after I went to college and didn’t know I had high notes before. My voice teacher in college was a famous tenor [but] because he was a tenor, he didn’t have female students before. He asked me to sing Violetta from Traviata and the Queen of the Night for a second-year jury. I just sang it because he was suggesting it. I actually could sing it, but I don’t know how. I never thought of myself as, ‘Oh, I’m dramatic coloratura.’ No, I actually never really thought about it.

Okay — so you’ve sung Flute with opera companies that include the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, Michigan Opera Theatre, Boston Lyric Opera, Aspen Music Festival, New England Conservatory, Hawaii Opera Theatre, and Opera Colorado and now with Los Angeles Opera — but who’s counting? Seriously, what are the challenges in singing Queen of the Night — and in so many different productions?

So Young Park as the Queen of the Night in Boston Lyric Opera's The Magic Flute

The one thing with Flute, I think that makes it different than any other opera is the translations, especially in America. I’ve done so many different productions here and every one had a different translation. Some are in German, but the dialogue was different. It was in English and every time I had to learn it, it was so different. [Once] I had to be on stage flying and would hang on from a high ceiling. Sometimes I walk around on the floor and move around a lot.

It never gets easy to me, actually. Every time it’s different and every production staging makes it new to me, so it’s a good thing and I don’t get bored. Also, I met so many different conductors and music coaches and there’s always things to learn. It’s amazing to hear everyone’s ideas of this one fun piece.

Which brings us to the Kosky production from the Komische Oper Berlin, where he has really been shaking up the opera world. Here the Queen of the Night looks like a head atop a giant spider with piercing tentacles. What is that like for you?

The challenge is that I’m wearing a harness — it’s like a seatbelt on your waist — and I cannot really move much. I am stuck on the little platform attached to the wall and for me, the most challenging thing, well, I cannot say most, but it is not easy for sure, because I like to move. I’m learning how to move my body a little bit while I’m attached.

Of course, it’s also about breath control. It’s easier when I can move my arms or my hips or walk a little — that helps with breath and it goes more like normal. In this one, it’s not. I have to control it fully. I can say it’s harder for sure and maybe some singers like to sing out in one spot, but I prefer to move around.

So Young Park as the Queen of the Night in LA Opera's The Magic Flute | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera

What is the power of The Magic Flute and the power of Mozart in general?

The music itself is so perfect — you don’t feel like you’re listening to hard music. It’s so natural that you feel like you’ve heard it before and it goes really smooth and at the end you feel like it was refreshing and it clears your mind. True music, you don’t need to think about.

I had a friend visiting me in Macao and he never had seen any opera before — he only saw musical theater. He was like, “OMG, I thought opera is the same thing as musical theater, but it’s so different. Musicals use microphones and after that, that was so loud, my ears were kind of tired. Opera is more calm and makes you think. Little things like that make me comfortable.”

Another thing for me is it’s easy to listen to and listening to live orchestra is a huge thing for the audience. They can feel real music and they can feel it from their heart. And Mozart is the perfect music, anyway.

Whether it’s easy listening, hard listening, thrilling or perfect music, it does seem as if everybody knows the Queen of the Night aria.

Yes, it’s true. I would say, however, that the Queen of the Night aria is not so natural. But everyone knows it, even my friend who’d never seen any opera, he knew this aria.

You made your Metropolitan Opera debut in January of this year in Julie Taymor’s puppet-filled, circus-like 2004 production of The Magic Flute, which you’ll repeat in December. Is it every opera singer’s dream to perform at The Met and what makes Taymor’s Flute so popular?

Of course, to sing at The Met is amazing, I think so. It’s too big, too much, and you don’t really feel like you did it, but the opportunity was amazing and working with the Met was dreamy. It was my third production, because I was covering two other queens. [Taymor’s] is a Christmas production. It’s a good length — one hour for each act and that’s good for kids. It’s very colorful, with beautiful costumes, and the set is moving a lot. There are so many things you can see, and it’s really well-made.

The Kosky production is good for kids, too. We had an open dress rehearsal in Macao and [some] 3,000 kids showed up. They loved it. They don’t lie, because if they don’t like it, they don’t applaud. And it’s good that kids can watch an opera that’s two hours and 40 minutes.

You also do a lot of new music — from the Glass operas, Akhnaten and Satyagraha to Jack Perla’s An American Dream with Lyric Opera of Chicago. You even performed the role of Pat Nixon (in John Adams’s Nixon in China) at the Music Center’s 50th-anniversary concert. How do you decide which roles to sing and how different is it performing the classic opera repertory as opposed to a contemporary work?

I don’t know why and how I got so much contemporary music with me — I didn’t plan to. It’s harder for sure, because I have to learn it and study like mad, especially the Glass music. It’s not how beautiful you can sing, but how strong you can make it sound from beginning to the end. It makes your vocal cords very tired. Glass was challenging, but it was a good time for me to train my vocal cords. I had to know how not to press myself and to not think too much. It was hard, but very satisfying, too, after the run.

What roles do you wish to perform in the future and do you see a day when you abandon the Queen?

I’ve sung Queen a little too many times in short periods, so I hadn’t had a break for two years, so I sang the doll [Olympia], Akhnaten, and then Blonde — that was fun, too. Cute roles, you know. I was having a break and then I went back to singing Queen again — this Met production and now more Barrie Kosky productions and another Queen back at the Met.

But because we were just talking about contemporary music, I like to be someone else, having fun on stage, moving around. I would love to do Adele from Fledermaus, Norina in Don Pasquale, Adina in Elixir [of Love], more like a character. I’ve sung Queen so many times — they’re singing machines — and dolls — but I want to be a character onstage and have fun. I am singing more Queens in the next year so it has to be the year after, in 2021–2022.