The tenor Duke Kim, an apprentice artist who is playing Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, moved with his family from their native South Korea to Orange County, California, when he was 14. “My Dad worked for Samsung. I was born in Korea. We moved to Germany when I was 4, then back to Korea until we moved to the U.S.” He and his sister learned English by watching American movies. His first name, Yeon Jun, was difficult for his new schoolmates to remember, so he decided to look for an American name. “We were watching a movie called ‘She’s the Man,’ about a female soccer player who dresses like a man in order to compete on a male team. Channing Tatum played the team captain. His name was Duke. I liked it.”
He also found a sense of belonging by singing in the choir at his new high school. “They were really nice to me in choir. My English wasn’t that good, but in choir, I made some really good friends. I realized I could be a part of this new country by singing.” Originally, his “plan was to become a Korean Pop Star. “I really liked the Korean singer/songwriters in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. I thought I could become a solo artist,” he said. He began voice lessons with that in mind, but the teacher had him start out singing classical art songs. “He said I should use classical music to learn good technique. My teacher was an opera singer.”
He was soon encouraged to pursue an opera career. “I learned I had one voice I could use to blend-in singing in the choir, and then another voice I could use during solos.” He found himself singing falsetto when he wanted not to stand out, but when he got up to sing a solo, “that’s when I could really sing.” His parents supported his decision to give performing a try. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college, and singing, really, was just fun.” He majored in vocal performance at Chapman University, then enrolled at Rice University, where he received an M.M. in 2018. He was selected to be an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera in 2019, and then was offered a small role and the understudy for Tamino in the 2020 production of The Magic Flute here that never happened. This year, in addition to his role in Midsummer, he is covering Lensky in Eugene Onegin, and singing in the chorus of The Lord of Cries.
Kim spent 2020 back at home in California, mostly studying by himself. He started the first year of the Washington National Opera Cafritz Young Artist Program, but the usual curriculum was narrowed down to virtual time spent with coaching and voice lessons. None of the opera productions he was scheduled to participate in were held. “I spent a lot of time trying to process what my teachers were telling me. I was working on the bottom of my range, which I was trying to make too heavy, and trying to find a more natural approach to my high notes. I think I found it, because I could hit nine high-C’s at the Met Competition.”
In May, he was one of five winners in Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (recently renamed the Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition). He was the only tenor finalist, and the only male winner. The entire competition — starting with 1,200 applicants, 600 qualifying for district auditions, 141 singers in 10 regional rounds, 23 nominated as semi-finalists, and 10 finalists — was also held virtually. The finalists usually have the opportunity to perform with the Met Orchestra in New York — but that will have to wait. His high C’s came in the aria “Ah! Mes Amis,” from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment.
Kim is 29, but because he says he looks young for his age, and still developing vocally, many of the romantic leads he hopes to play will have to wait. “Mozart and Donizetti are really good for my voice right now. They encourage healthy singing. My dream role would be Rudolfo in La bohéme, but it’s going to take a little time for my voice to acquire the color and maturity I’ll need,” he said. “I’m not going to sing anything that I can’t do A-plus,” he said. “After all, let’s be honest. I’m putting my product out there.”
Lysander is one of the young lovers chasing around in the night in Midsummer. “He is deeply in love with Hermia, but her father doesn’t think he is good enough. He orders Hermia to marry Demetrius, who does fall in love with Hermia, but only after he dumps Helena. No one loves Helena. It’s a complicated love triangle plus one,” he said. Musically, the Britten music was challenging. “At first, when I was playing the notes on the piano, it sounded strange and disjointed. Then, when I listened to the orchestra part, it all fit together. There are so many colors. It’s atmospheric.”
One of the things Kim remembers most fondly about singing in Santa Fe in 2019 was the sensation of breeze blowing on his face. “It’s a tactile sensation that the audience feels too,” he said. He’s hoping that the elements help shape A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well. “I like to imagine the scene in the woods with real weather. It’s intense, there are so many emotions going on. If it rains, if there are thunderstorms, if the moon is really big, it will be even more magical.” ◀