IN THE NOH: Korean Diva

If opera is baseball for gay men, then great divas, like great pitchers, are absolutely indispensable for the survival of the sport. Last season at the Met, with the likes of Piotr Beczala, Joseph Calleja, and Juan Diego Flores, tenors seemed to rule the roost, but this season the sopranos have happily come back into their own.

In “Stiffelio,” Sondra Radvanovsky stood out, proving herself once more a true Verdian lirico-spinto, and it’s a good thing they grow the girls strong in Riga, because the entire, vulgarly misconceived new production of “Carmen” rested on the creamy shoulders of Elina Garanca, a true star.

Surefire Shaw, Czech film gold, Mineo’s teddy bear

But my favorite new diva is petite Kathleen Kim who, in “Tales of Hoffman,” stole the show as the definitive doll Olympia, impressing with her silvery voice, confident coloratura notes, and hilariously mechanical movements. She not only sang the bejesus out of the part, but totally looked it as well, a far cry from the great Joan Sutherland, whose profile in this same role remains for me one of the more horrific in operatic annals, more Golem than poupée, the very kind of thing which makes novices fear opera.

Obviously, the Met powers-that-be agree with me, for Kim is slated to appear as Zerbinetta in the upcoming “Ariadne auf Naxos.” I caught the soprano while rehearsing this opera’s fiendishly difficult aria, the most daunting combo of killer high notes, unwieldy German pronunciation, and irresistible charm requirements.

“Zerbinetta is so brilliant,” Kim said, “and I agree with everything she says, especially the duet she sings with the Composer. The music is so beautiful and the words are so right, like when she talks about how she plays the coquette on stage, but in real life is still lonely. I feel some kind of bond with her because she’s also a performer, and in the way she talks about men. Everything is so right and it’s fascinating –– she’s so honest and out there. Hoffmannsthal!”

Kim is a total stage animal, modest and unassuming in real life, but a live wire as soon as the lights hit her: “I had fun doing ‘Hoffman,’ but yesterday I watched the HD broadcast and thought, ‘How did I do that?’ I was so nervous, but [director] Bartlett Sher has such a great sense of humor, very funny guy, and although I worked more with our choreographer Dou Dou Huang, all those little psychotic moments were Bart’s idea. I loved my wig and costume –– I took ballet as a child and it was my first tutu, and pink is my favorite color. They originally wanted me to wear point shoes, and I tried, but it was impossible with the raked stage.”

Kim was born in Korea and performed as a child on a Sunday TV show: “I was always singing and dancing, and my mom was a Korean folk dancer, so it’s in my blood I guess. My parents divorced when I was young, so I grew up with my mom in Korea, but I wanted to sing, and it’s very hard to get into college in Korea, very competitive. So we thought it was a good idea to come to America, where my father was living in Maryland, where he owned a martial arts studio.”

Kim attended Manhattan School of Music, where she received training but no stage experience, then got married to a physical therapist, whom she described as “not a traditional Korean guy. He’s very open-minded and supportive, used to hate opera but now loves it.” She got her first professional job with the New Jersey State Opera Chorus as a spirit in “The Magic Flute,” then worked with Sarasota Opera and the Music Academy of the West, where she impressed Marilyn Horne and Matthew Epstein, who helped get her into Chicago Lyric Opera. There, she had a triumph as Madame Mao in John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”

“I loved that, but it was really hard to learn because it’s almost as high as the Queen of the Night, and technically hard, tonal but not tonal in Act III. But I got to learn about this lady –– she’s a little crazy, but she was just a woman who had big ambitions. Adams was there and that was thrilling, like singing a Mozart opera for Mozart. He’s very nice, but afterwards he came onstage to take a bow and I met him briefly. There was then a reception, and I went up to him and asked, ‘Mr. Adams, can I take a picture with you?’ He said, ‘Sure, sure. Were you in the opera?’ When I told him I sang Madame Mao, he said, ‘Oh, you look beautiful in real life!’ Because I was really ugly, in an ugly wig, cheongsam, and chunky glasses.”

Kim auditioned twice for the Met National Council auditions: “There were three judges for my New Jersey audition –– two wanted to advance me but one didn’t want me, so they gave me an encouragement award. I did it again and didn’t get anything.”

I told Kim that it must be sweet revenge for her now starring on the Met stage, and she said, “I know the judge who didn’t like me –– I don’t think she knows this –– and now she’s very nice to me.”

Asked why so many Koreans have such good voices, Kim replied, “I don’t know –– maybe it’s all the garlic we eat. But it’s hard to have a career because of the language, first of all, then our look –– you have to have more than a voice to survive.”

Another obstacle facing many Korean singers is the kind of shyness that Kim admits to. She’s the type you have to practically force to admit that James Levine brava’ed her: “I know, this modesty is a Korean thing. We’re raised to just be very polite and never raise our voice. I was nervous the whole time I sang with James Levine. But he’s just amazing, and every time I work with him, I suddenly become a better singer. There’s something magic about him.”

Kim idolizes two formidable practitioners of her fach, Natalie Dessay and Edita Gruberova, while admitting her dream roles are “Lucia and Gilda. I’ve done enough happy light roles, enough dolls and Queens of the Night, which is not that much fun. It’s all about the high F’s, so very high pressure, and waiting around between her two arias is really long. I like drama and want to show my ability to create a character. But, after the ‘Hoffman’ HD broadcast, I got an email from this lady who is going through chemotherapy. She said for 20 minutes she forgot about her pain, and thanked me for this painless 20 minutes. That was quite something, and again all about the power of singing.”

Try and catch Pearl Theatre’s production of “Misalliance” (through January 24, pearltheatre.org; see Christopher Byrne’s full review), so lively it makes it that rare Shaw production that doesn’t cause your eyes to glaze over from all the admittedly brilliant but often didactic palaver. Pearl’s bright new City Center locale has brought blazing life to the company with smashing set and costumes and captivating ensemble acting. Dan Daily is a superbly droll magnate, Lee Stark penny-bright as his free-thinking daughter, Steven Boyer hilariously bratty as her fiancé (like Dwight Frye on speed), and my favorite New York actor, Sean McNall, once again demonstrates his sheer brilliance as a would-be assassin, making a succulent meal of his speech about the dehumanizing nature of most 9-5’s.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which just closed at the Kitchen, had a brilliant initial premise addressing every slacker who’s barely bothered to lift the Bard, but little else; as it played out, it became merely a repetitive riff on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers saga. However, I want to single out Anne Gridley, who was comic genius with her gnomish mien and delivery, reciting her mumblecore “ums” and “whatevers” and lofty mispronunciations (“Juliet had taken poi-sohn!”) with hilarious Bernhardt-like grandiloquence.

I caught Marek Najbrt’s “Protektor” at the New York Jewish Film Festival, and am pushing for a theatrical release of this terrific study of the Czech Resistance movement during World War II. If you enjoyed Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” for all of its flash and excessive gore, this is the real deal –– scrupulously researched, intelligently directed, vividly photographed, and wonderfully acted. There are surprising marked similarities to Tarantino here, like the moviehouse setting and assassination attempts, but Najbrt’s characters are real, conflicted people rather than splashy cartoons, and his period evocation is utterly authentic, set in the dreamily untouched city of Prague.

Anthology Film Archives is screening a real film maudit, Joseph Cates’ 1965 “Who Killed Teddy Bear?” (32 Second Ave. at Second St., Jan. 22-24, anthologyfilmarchives.org), which, while a basic mess, is undeniably fascinating. How could it be otherwise with a plot involving a touching Juliet Prowse being menaced by an obscene phone caller, while she toils as a DJ for lesbian disco owner Elaine Stritch, who also employs beautiful, buff Sal Mineo (a decade before his mysterious Los Angeles murder, allegedly at the hands of a pizza deliveryman)?

Stritch wears her trademark Greek fisherman’s hat and butchly snarls lines like, “Manners from a cop I don’t expect, but you abuse the privilege.” Mineo struts about in the tightest, most package–revealing film wardrobe ever, and the grubby photography captures a sleazy Times Square forever gone, and sadly so, however awful it seemed at the time. Disneyfication is even more horrific, and you’ll nostalgically drool over the eclectically dirty bookshops (which position “Naked Lunch” next to “Black Stud”), 42nd Street passion pit theaters (“Call Girl 77”), cheap lunch counters, and posters advertising “Bajour” and Victor Borge.

Comedian Jan Murray is hysterically cast as a tough detective with a fascination for the perverse: “The telephone psychotic is just the beginning. Some are fetishists, some are sadists or masochists. There are the simple voyeurs and pedophiliacs, and then there are the combinations, and I don’t mean your Uncle Charlie who buys pinup calendars. I mean the complicated pairings of sadomasochists, voyeur-masochists, the exhibitionists, the necrophiliacs.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his new blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

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