Well before the stage lights shine—before ensemble casts coalesce or adoring audiences applaud—the opera magic starts with a coach and a singer.
A key component in the preparation of any opera, the coach conveys extensive knowledge of the music, literary sources, language, and drama, often amassed over the course of years, to performers who must master their parts in a matter of weeks.
Now in her first year as associate professor of opera coaching at Oberlin, Kyung-Eun Na began her own intensive study of Domenico Cimarosa’s comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto long before conservatory students turned their attention to it for auditions held last fall. This week, the fruit of their collective labor hits the stage of Hall Auditorium for four performances.
For Na, it is the latest in a long line of productions at venerable opera houses, festivals, and other institutions, among them Hawaii Opera Theatre, Ravinia Steans Music Institute, the Music Academy of the West, Aspen Opera Theater Center, and the International Music Academy in Italy.
“My role is very much the same as it would be at an opera house,” she says of her work with Oberlin students. “I am basically an assistant to the conductor. Before the conductor arrives, it is my job to make sure the singers are fully prepared, with their music fully memorized, as well as the language and dramatic elements, so that they are comfortable and up to the level of performance they hope for.”
It’s a process far more complicated than merely learning lyrics in a foreign language—a sufficiently daunting feat in itself.
“We discuss the whole plot synopsis. We discuss in detail the specifics of what each singer’s character might entail. We ask the question Why is the music written in this way? I look into the musical details based on the drama, so that it makes sense to the student and so it makes sense to the audience as well.”
Na also guides each singer’s lyric diction, whether the opera is sung in Italian (as Cimarosa’s comedy is) or French, German or English. She’s well versed in them all, as well as her native Korean.
“My goal in helping them with lyric diction is to help them find the best singing capacity with that diction,” she says. “It’s important for them to feel the flow and the rhythm of the language.”
By the time the conductor joins in, the cast is prepared to sing the entire show, with Na at the piano. Soon after, they transition into rehearsing with orchestra. In the weeks leading up to opening night, Na continues to conduct staging rehearsals on days when the conductor leads separate orchestra rehearsals.
A classically trained pianist, Na also sang at a young age in youth choirs and even participated in La Scala’s Asian tour of Puccini’s Turandot at age 10. She gradually found herself drawn to vocal work while working on an Artist Diploma with professor Haewon Song at Oberlin, frequently playing for student lessons in the studios of voice faculty members. “I realized I enjoying working with other people,” she recalls. “I was really into language studies and literature, and I love history, so it was a good fit for me.”
Na took up formal studies in collaborative piano at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, earning a master’s degree and doctorate, respectively. Prior to Oberlin, she taught at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Manhattan, and Purchase College Conservatory of Music, among other stops. She embraces the opportunity to collaborate with Oberlin’s undergraduate singers, as opposed to the graduate students and professional singers she frequently encountered elsewhere.
“When I work with professional singers, they’re pretty much finished products,” she says. “I need to be very careful with undergraduate students, because their instrument is still developing. I need to find out where they are with their vocal capacity, and I’m trying to learn who they are and what their personality is, so that I can customize the way I work with each one of them.
“The main thing for me is to be positive and constructive when it comes to teaching. But it’s also really important for young singers to know themselves and where they are, so I don’t push them to hurt their voices—or their feelings. With singers, their body is an instrument.”
Il Matrimonio Segreto opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 24, in Hall Auditorium. It continues with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, and concludes with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. Tickets ($10, $8 for students) are available by calling 800-371-0178, online, or in the Nord Annex lobby (67 N. Main St.) weekdays from noon to 5 p.m.
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