When asked how many times she has sung the lead role of Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, soprano Karah Son, in a Zoom interview from San Francisco, said, “Actually, more than 200 times,” adding, “but after that I stopped counting. Now it’s close to 300 times in 20 different productions.”
The Korean-born singer will add eight more performances to her CV when she again takes on the iconic role with San Francisco Opera, June 3 – July 1, with a June 9 performance to be streamed live.
Conducted by Music Director Eun Sun Kim, the new production, by Amon Miyamoto and staged with associate director Miroku Shimada, tells the opera’s story through the eyes of Trouble, the son of Cio-Cio-San and Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, providing a unique perspective on the beloved tale of tragedy and heartbreak.
Son, who calls Seoul, South Korea her home, graduated with a degree in voice from the capital city’s Yonsei University, then completed her musical education at the Vivaldi Music Conservatory in Novara, Italy. In addition, she attended Milan’s Academy of the Teatro alla Scala, where she was mentored by the late soprano Mirella Freni.
Making her debut in 1997 in the role of Countess Rosina in Le Nozze di Figaro at Seoul’s National Theater, Son has performed Cio-Cio-San on stages across Europe, North America and Australia, and has also assayed other Puccini roles, such as Mimì in La Bohème and Liù in Turandot.
SFCV recently caught up with the charming soprano, in San Francisco for Butterfly rehearsals.
Was there music in your family, and when was the moment that you knew you wanted to be an opera singer?
My parents are big fans of opera, so they would always play the recordings, the arias, when I was little. I was musical [and] my parents pushed me to play violin and piano — also singing. The day I saw the opera Manon [Lescaut] I was in high school. It was the first time to see opera, and the feeling was strong. I was so surprised by the beauty of opera, [that] I decided to be an opera singer in high school.
After you graduated from Yonsei University in Seoul, you went to Italy to continue your vocal studies. Was that a difficult transition? Had you already been learning Italian and what was it like studying with the late, great Mirella Freni?
I got to Italy and it was like culture shock to me. Everything is different [and] I didn’t speak any Italian. I was shocked when they [greeted me] with two small kisses on the palms [because] I wasn’t familiar with Western culture. Then I met Mirella. She was like a mom to me, [though] sometimes she was a little bit strict.
[But] I learned many things from her. One time, I took my son to her lesson. He was three or four years old and during the lesson, I didn’t quite follow her teaching well, so she got a little bit frustrated and her voice started to rise up. My son watched and walked up to her, and he took a stance between us, as though he was protecting me. Mirella was touched by his actions and she said this to him: “One day you will understand how I care about your mom.”
It is true. I really appreciate her. She [was] like the mom — a very caring person, a warm, caring person. When I did my professional debut in Turandot in Verona, she gave me a small necklace, like a medal, as a gift.
That’s so beautiful. I can’t help but wonder if your son is planning to go into music, as well?
He is preparing to go to university and he wants to go into music. He’s a good tenor [and] one day I hope to work with him.
That would be really cool! Okay, since you began singing Butterfly, all those many performances ago, how has your interpretation changed over the years?
It has changed. I am trying to reach a good level of technique and constantly I am improving — not only as a singer but as a person. Also, as a mother, my thoughts and interpretations are different.
Let’s talk about this production. The visionary Japanese director Amon Miyamoto presents the story from the perspective of Trouble, Cio-Cio-San’s son with Pinkerton. Now he’s a grown man discovering the events that led to his American upbringing. The director has said that this staging can be considered a sequel or spinoff of Puccini’s opera, and that he wants viewers to feel just a hint of the ecstasy and the agony of true and abiding love. Had you worked with Miyamoto before, what do you think about his vision?
I hadn’t worked with him before, but I think this production is brilliant, and really interesting to me. It has a special concept [and is seen] through the eyes of the son. I often wondered about the story of her son, and what his life living in America was since his mom’s death.
It’s set in the early 20th century and he’s also mixed race [and is] trying to figure out his identity, watching the parents’ story before his birth. It’s very sad. And, absolutely, you will feel the agony and ecstasy of love.
You’re singing all eight performances, with Eun Sun Kim on the podium. Have you worked with her before?
I’ve worked with her maybe four or five years ago. We did Butterfly in Stuttgart. I love her, and love that I am doing it again here [in San Francisco]. I love her soft and gentle and great leadership. She is excellent in music [and] it makes me very happy when I sing.
How should a story like Madama Butterfly be presented today, if the story itself is a misogynistic and brutal one? What about cultural appropriation — and should the work be removed from the repertory, as some believe?
If we think about the plight of Cio-Cio-San, it’s very sad, but I think the crisis is more about humanity, even before our time. The story has existed for years in many parts of the world, and probably still we have the same issues. I’d say, “It’s humans being humans, and we must strive to be better.”
Art and opera like this, it could be a reminder for our generation not to repeat the same wrongs. We can make the world a better place.
[And] no, it shouldn’t be removed from the repertory. Again, that’s why we study the wrongs in the past [because] we can figure out and find out solutions, [by] watching this opera.
From reading the press coverage, it looked as if your performance with Handa Opera on the Sydney Harbor was nothing less than spectacular. What was it like singing there and what other productions stand out for you?
It was an outdoor stage, [which] was a symbol of the beauty in the production. It was so amazing. In the [scene] when I was waiting for Pinkerton, it was perfect — being surrounded by the [Sydney] Opera House and the ocean view in front of me, it was great.
I respect all the productions, because they all have a special character, concept and story.
I did many different productions, for example, a Star Wars-style one in Sydney.
What roles would you like to sing that you haven’t yet, and what conductors would you like to work with?
I want to do Suor Angelica, and Manon Lescaut, the first opera I saw. If I do sing, Suor, I want Antonio Pappano to conduct. I want to do it with him, because I saw him introducing it on YouTube and thought he was [great].
YouTube seems to be the place to go for opera when you can’t get to a live production. In any case, Karah, where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
I want to sing somewhere like I am today, because singing onstage is given as a life gift.
Indeed! What is your practice routine like and how do you pace yourself for a run of performances?
I don’t have [a] special practice routine. I just concentrate to remember what I did in rehearsal. Naturally — especially — sleeping well, eating healthy foods, exercising, all [this] is very important during the production.
What advice do you have for aspiring opera singers, future Cio-Cio-Sans?
I think the body and soul are instruments, [so] take care of the instruments and enjoy the process of making beautiful music with the instrument, then good opportunities and results will follow.
With your busy schedule, I’d like to know what you do to relax and what’s on your playlist?
I love cooking, and sometimes I watch YouTube [videos] on how to cook. And when I cook and eat, I usually listen to jazz — Chick Corea — he was a wonderful musician. And sometimes I listen to K-Pop, like BTS. My son wants to be an opera singer, and he’s also a hip-hop singer and has a goal to be a producer. Sometimes we listen together to Justin Bieber and BTS.