Hera Hyesang Park: “I feel very grateful every day”
In an interview with the rising star Hera Hyesang Park we talked about the milestones of her career, discussed the time when she got a contract from Deutsche Grammophon, recalled her debut at the Metropolitan Opera and spoke about the way of dealing with stress.
Could you tell us about your childhood? Do you come from a musical family? Where did you hear opera for the first time and why did you decide to become an opera singer?
When my mum was pregnant, she listened to a lot of music, and she played the piano as an assistant teacher in a small piano school. So, she told me that whenever she was listening to music, I used to kick her belly, so she got the idea to raise me as a musician. It was quite natural for her to bring me to a musical dream.
When I was around 8 years ago, she brought me to the choir. I was with them for almost 10 years, and this choir allowed me to travel a lot internationally, not just in Korea. I visited America, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and Japan. I always felt the privilege and was so excited to be able to travel to different places. I thought being a singer was such a cool thing as you get a chance to see different cultures and people speaking different languages. It was very fascinating for me.
So, it was quite natural to become a classical musician, but the reason why I really decided that this was truly my type of job was around my teenage time when my parents got divorced. You know, in Korea it is kind of difficult to be honest about this because of the society. It was seen as a kind of sin. You can definitely be divorced there but it is not seen as a nice gesture. My parents were so nervous that people were going to find out, so I had to hide that my parents were divorced.
I started to express my sadness and my anger through music. I was so glad that whenever I sang, it came out beautifully. I loved this process too, it did not only help me. Besides, I really wanted them to get together again. Every time I used to win a competition or to sing a performance, my parents would come to see me. In the beginning, they were sitting separately, but because of people’s judgment or their own perspective, they started sitting closer. So, the more I performed, the closer to each other they started sitting. When I went to university, they started to sit together as if they were just a couple. After 10 years, my parents got together again. Now they are a couple and living together.
At that time, I just wanted to sing in the competition to see my parents being together. Now the purpose of singing has changed. I am so grateful for where I am. It is my therapy. Life is not always easy but I have a great time through music.
Can you tell us about the most memorable performance you have had?
I remember one competition I had in high school. I sang “Das Veilchen” by Mozart. It was about a flower, and the text goes like this: there is a beautiful girl coming towards this flower, and this flower expects that this little girl will see it and will love it as this flower wants to be loved by this girl. But, actually, this girl steps on the flower, and this flower is dying. However, in the end, the flower says, “I am so happy to die under my beloved girl’s feet”.
When I sang this, I did not have a great condition, my voice was not healthy. I was very nervous, but as a Christian, I prayed and asked for help as it was my first competition ever. I kind of felt that this music was about Jesus. Through this song, Jesus says that “I love you no matter what. Because of you, I went to the cross, and I sacrificed for your life. I will take care of you”. I really felt this at that moment. I sang onstage and I felt like Jesus was standing in front of me to support me, and I got the first prize. I will never forget the moment. I did not feel that I was singing, I felt I was just a fish that was opening its mouth to eat some food, but the voice came out very miraculously. I will never forget this moment.
Could you share with us the milestones of your career? What events in your life do you consider the key ones?
Of course, I cannot skip the moment when Deutsche Grammophon offered me a contract. I was dreaming of a great career, but this one I definitely did not expect. When it happened to me, it was so weird. I felt grateful and also a lot of responsibility, because over more than 100 years of the history of Deutsche Grammophon, they had never hired an Asian soprano. So, I kind of constantly had to doubt why they had chosen me, what was the specialty of my voice, if I was really worth as much as they valued me. I was experiencing this constant pressure and was trying to find my own identity. It just gave me the whole question mark “Why me?” It not only helped my wish to become a better artist but also changed my perspective of how I can become a better person, and it is still in the process. I am trying to be better in and out, as a human being and as an artist.
How did they find you to offer a contract? How was it?
When I went to the opera competition in London, one of the agents of Deutsche Grammophon came to attend the Operalia competition. She liked my voice, and we said hello to each other, but it took more than 3 years to finally get a contract. They had been watching me for some time. Then we met after Salzburg and shared our life stories. After that, we saw each other at Glyndebourne Festival as their agent came to see my performance. At that time I sang Rosina, and at the end of the performance he came to me and offered a contract. It was in a very casual and friendly environment because Glyndebourne Festival takes place in the countryside. There is nothing to eat after the performance, and everything is closed at 10 pm. So, we were just walking in a small town under a beautiful bridge and went to the kebab place, and ordered a Coca-Cola, it was just so natural. I was overwhelmed, I was so happy.
Could you tell us about your debut at the Metropolitan Opera? How was it?
Actually, I made my debut at the Met in 2017, but it was a very-very small role, but despite this, it was just a magical moment that I will never forget. It was a new production, so I was happy that my family was able to see the HD. Recently as the main role, I made a debut as Pamina in “The Magic Flute”. Singing with Rolando Villazon was also my dream. It was very inspiring in a sense that the artist who had already made a huge operatic career turned out to be an admirable person. He is still very nervous backstage, feeling excited, grateful, overwhelmed, humble, modest, and really-really positive, having a great energy. It was nice to learn from such a professional as I am at the beginning of my career and I would love to make my career for the long-term, so I should not lose the excitement and gratitude, appreciation, and opportunity too. This is something I was constantly learning while studying at the Young Artists Programme at the Met and then performing there. When you are on that stage, maybe it is only me, I value the overall process: whether it is a rehearsal or the opening night. This process is of huge learning and such an education. I am humbly grateful that I could work with such amazing people, really. I really mean it.
What difficulties did you have to overcome there? Were there any?
Generally speaking, of course, but not really at the Metropolitan. I am talking about racism. People have been careful and very cautious of it, but still, it is there, and I have had these painful moments and hard times. Also as a woman, we are always treated in a certain way. Some people are amazing, but some of them are not so nice. So, what helps me is acknowledging that it has always been there, also putting more effort and keeping going. It does not do any good if you stay in the same place and suffer because of it. You should move on and remember that it is changing, and people are becoming more open. If my generation could not overcome this, then the next generation will make a great change. So, I will do my part.
How can a person outside of Europe and the USA make an international career? What tips can you give?
Honestly, I think I was just a lucky girl. Everyone has a different path to making this career. I do not know if there is a common strategy, but the most important thing you have to focus on is you have to have this mentality of being so grateful and happy along with what you do, willing to travel and sacrifice this life over a normal life.
Secondly, you should not have a competitive mindset, but should have some openness. Whenever I meet someone, I try to learn from them and value all the relationships. In the end, you cannot make a career by yourself, you have to have a wonderful team around you. Definitely, you have to fulfill the fundamentals for an opera singer, but people are very important too.
You should have enough patience because sometimes you can make a mistake if you rush into things if you want them so much. Knowing who you are and doing things that you can do the best feel very important too. You should always value yourself as well.
What can you say about vocal competitions? Are they a good way to do that?
I guess you should take part in competitions when you are really ready. For me, the main purpose was not winning, it was for the experience, for checking what other singers could do and how they performed. Also, it was a good way to see the world because they normally pay for your flight when you get into the final. I was very naive at that time. When I won the first prize, I was very happy but so confused, confused for years, really.
Tell us about your debut as Adina in Berlin. As we know, your first ever big role was also performed here, in Berlin, at Komische Oper. How did you get that contract?
I had such a great time with Barry Kosky at Komische Oper. He is just such a wild character. I enjoyed myself onstage. There was one moment when I had to throw something during the performance, and I did it throughout my breast. I scratched my breast and bled a lot, but I did not see it. The colleagues were so wonderful, and I loved the role of Musetta. Finally singing in Germany in Berlin was such a privilege.
This time I was, of course, more nervous because Adina is such a demanding role. After having sung so much, she has to perform an aria after Nemorino’s beautiful “Una furtiva lagrima”, so it is a “Why are you doing this to me?” kind of role. Honestly, I was personally affected by so many private things, for example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Then I was sick, and I, sadly, had to skip some of the performances. No matter what, Staatsoper Unter den Linden was so supportive, understanding, and nice. The choir members were amazing. More than 50 chorus members are from Korea. I was shocked by this fact. They said they were very proud of me and that they did not see any Korean soprano who had come to Staatsoper for over 20 years. This makes me quite responsible and makes me question again “Why me?” So, I really wanted to do it well for them to be proud. My colleagues were wonderful, the conductor Speranza Scspucci was super supportive. This is our third production together, we cover only belcanto. I had a great time with her. Always talking on Whatsapp, over the phone about the tempo, how we can do better, so I could not ask for more. She was a perfect match at Staatsoper.
Is there any difference in the opera production industry in the USA and Europe? Is there any difference in the type of voices they prefer in the USA and Europe? Singing style?
I always find that in Europe you do not have enough rehearsal periods. It is very fast, so you are better to be well-prepared. For example, I was at Bayerische Staatsoper for “Cosi Fan Tutte”, and the opening night was the first day when I finally met the orchestra. I did not have a chance to have a rehearsal with them before opening, but I think that the mentality of singers who often sing in Europe has a powerful strength. They know what it is like to be an opera singer. They take care of themselves. You never know when you will be called to sing and jump in. Theatres are so close to each other in Europe.
For example, when I had to cancel one of the performances of Adina, Olga Peretyatko and Pretty Yende jumped in and made a great success. When I sang “Cosi Fan Tutte, I had 4 performances, but I had 4 different Fiordeligges, so every time we just said hello to each other and then went onstage together. I think at the Met and other places this does not happen quite often. You have enough rehearsal time, so this is the biggest difference. Of course, the amount of theaters is definitely incomparable.
The reason for this, I think, is because classical music comes from Europe, so it is more demanding. There is also the system we call “ensemble”. Ensemble members are always ready to jump in or sing. They are always well-prepared, 24 hours, and the payment is also very much different.
Who are your favorite singers of the past?
My favorite ones are absolutely clear. Maria Callas and Anna Moffo, Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni!
What singers were you listening to while preparing your Rosina, Pamina, and Adina?
I listened to a lot of Cecilia Bartoli for Rosina. I listened to Met On Demand Pamina, many singers included Erin Morley, Ying Fang, Hanna Elisabeth Müller! For Adina, I heard Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorgiu.
In the light of the current situation, do you think an artist should remain neutral to politics or should they openly express their point of view? Do you think it is fair to exclude someone from the world stage only due to some assumptions on their political beliefs or the crime they might have committed in the past?
I am not into politics, but I think for peace an artist has to speak something, and music is such a powerful way, so we have to use it. However, if you are Russian and you are blamed for being Russian, this is not fair. We know how many Russian people demonstrated against Putin. They know what consequences they will have to face after this, but they really went to the streets and shouted for peace. There are people like this. Refusing Russian artists might affect Putin, but I think he has already crossed the lines. I do fight for peace. We have only the right to live peacefully. We deserve this. We are not born to fight.
What inspires you in everyday life? What gives you strength and energy when something goes wrong? How do you deal with stress?
I do meditation and talk to myself. When I feel stressed and under pressure, I just put one chair in front of me and place this energy of anxiety or worry on this chair. Then I say something like, “Pressure, you are useless, why are you here now? I hate you, please get away from me. You are a disaster in my life”. Then I change the roles and I become the pressure. I say to myself, “Hera, look. I understand that you are angry with me. I did not expect that you hate me so much, but if you think sensibly, you need me. Because of me you are moving your ass and working. So, maybe, you need it and I am a part of you, I will never go away. It is impossible”. Then I change the role again and apologize to my pressure. I acknowledge that because of this I have worked hard and made a career, but also I got stressed. Then I put this pressure feeling to my heart again, breathe calmly and become one person again. I say to myself, “We had a wonderful time together, let’s work together again”.
Also trying to feel grounded, sensing the energy coming from your feet, sleeping a lot, drinking a lot of water. If I feel stressed, sometimes I go to a practice room and sing only one phrase because if you repeat and repeat, you feel more confident.
Journlist: Julia Pneva
Photography: KOPIS, Chun Youngsang