> Soprano Hye-Youn Lee chats Scottish Opera's La traviata & her craft - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Soprano Hye-Youn Lee chats Scottish Opera’s La traviata & her craft

World renowned soprano, Hye-Youn Lee, will be performing as Violetta in Scottish Opera’s upcoming tour of Verdi’s La traviata. Hye-Youn shares her thoughts on the opera and her craft.

For the uninitiated, could you tell our readers about La traviata?

This is the story of young people who cannot be together because of the social conditions of the time, though it feels very modern too.

The character I play, Violetta, is ‘La traviata’, which in Italian means ‘fallen woman.’ She’s a courtesan in the 19th century – she’s very charming, she attends a lot of parties entertaining wealthy men and that is how she makes her money, how she survives. So, apart from living this glamorous life she also suffers from consumption and this gradually weakens her.

In Act 1 she meets Alfredo, a young, passionate, nice man from a wealthy family and they fall in love. She decides to abandon her empty lifestyle and move out to the country and for a time they are very happy, then Alfredo’s father appears and demands that Violetta leave because her history, her presence, is a disgrace to the family.  For Alfredo’s sake Violetta agrees to leave, but she is very sick and dying all alone.

Oh my goodness, that is so sad!

I know! I don’t want to give too much away and spoil it.

Violetta has been described as a signature role for you.

Yes, but not only for me. The role of Violetta is one of the most demanding Soprano’s, a kind of pinnacle, so anyone who studies opera, who wants to sing opera, wants this role as it demands a lot of capability. It has a really high E Flat and your voice has to be very agile, but also quite lyrical because the emotion is so deep.

Is that what draws you to the character and La traviata overall?

Yes, the skill involved. Also, you have to deliver on the emotion and the challenge is very great. The role of Violetta is genuine, she sacrifices a lot for her love [Alfredo] and this is quite attractive, [to me] as a singer

Anush Hovhannisyan as Violetta and Peter Gijsbertsen as Alfredo in the 2017 production of La traviata. Scottish Opera 2017. Credit: Jane Hobson.

How did you come to opera in your life?

I used to sing in the choir at church and I knew that I had quite a high voice, but secretly. I didn’t ever say that I love singing, then at high school my music teacher noticed that I had a little bit of talent so he met with my parents and he recommended that I should study singing, or you know, music in general.  My parents were quite hesitant: we don’t have a musician in our family and originally I wanted to be an interpreter. But I said if I’m going to study music then I really want to sing so we all agreed I’d give it a try and so I moved to Berlin and studied for my Bachelor’s in music. Opera is a European thing, right; opera is not Korean so I didn’t have any information about it as a Korean and I wanted to learn so, yeah, I moved to Germany. 

That was an incredibly brave thing to do on your own

Yeah, it was scary for me and scary for my family because we’re very close. My father was crying, my mother was crying, I was crying! But I had this really strong feeling that I wanted to learn so I had to go.

How long does it take you to prepare for a role? 

Preparation really depends on the piece, but this one I did ten years ago and I remember certain things. But in ten years you change a lot, your voice changes a lot and you grow emotionally so for this, probably about three months. 

Is there anything you need to deny yourself (during preparation) to keep your voice strong?

Ah…[laughing] yes, a lot of things.  I need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated, rooms need to be quite humid so I put wet towels on the radiator in my hotels so as not to dry out my vocal cords. I can’t have spicy food, no coffee, no chocolate, no cheese, no alcohol, no dairy. It’s a lot! I can’t really socialise during preparation, go out, because you find yourself having to talk loud and it’s just not good for the voice.

Well, I hope in your downtime you allow yourself to indulge!

Oh yes, of course!

I think it is safe to say that opera has long been a passion of the upper classes. Do you think this is still the case or is it becoming more inclusive?

I think every opera company wants to create for everyone. I still think people have this cliché view that opera is still only for a certain category of people, and yes, the tickets can be expensive but you can find other ways to pay less. There will always be reduced price tickets available and for young people there are cheaper tickets too. I think opera is really trying to include everyone. I think also that people think the language is also a barrier because we sing in Italian, but I think with the beautiful music you just sort of dive right into it. I highly recommend La Traviata or any Puccini opera to start off because they’re truly beautiful and really not that difficult to understand because the stories, they’re universal and people can relate.

What will you be working on next?

I have a Verdi requiem after La traviata in Glasgow, then a couple days off and then a Puccini opera in Cambridge… and then I’ll be in Romania!

You’re well-travelled!

Haha, yeah! 

Scottish Opera tours La traviata till 15th June: Theatre Royal Glasgow, Eden Court Inverness, His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen, Festival Theatre Edinburgh

Scottish Opera’s La Traviata tickets here

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