Finding Her Voice Singer: Peabody student Byung-Soon Lee has crossed an ocean and grappled with cultural and language barriers, and now hopes to break into the world of opera.

March 09, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN COLUMNIST

Twenty-six-year-old Byung-Soon Lee steps onto the stage at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and walks quickly across the floor to the Steinway where her accompanist is waiting. She slips into the hollow formed by the instrument's curved side and turns to face the audience. For a moment, she seems nonplused by the sheer size of the hall. Then she begins to sing.

At first, her voice sounds lost in the cavernous hall, its 3,200 seats almost empty now except for a handful of friends and supporters who have turned out this Sunday afternoon to witness the country's most prestigious competition for aspiring opera singers. But as the plaintive melody gathers momentum, Lee's voice gains strength, resonating with a purity of feeling that fills the grand space with pathos and drama. Lee, eyes half closed, head tilted slightly back, is conjuring up a musical persona of infinite sadness, a lonely wayfarer wandering amid the soul's dark night.

It is Amina's last aria from Bellini's "La Sonambula," a haunting lament in which the sleepwalking heroine recounts the pain of lost love. Lee's voice caresses each phrase like fingers lightly opening the petals of a flower, while the piano empathizes in hushed arpeggios that mark the harmony's tearful progress.

Suddenly, the performance is over. Lee seems to awaken as if from a trance, and the house shrugs off its involuntary hush.

When the singer has composed herself, she nods to her accompanist and begins again -- this time an aria of contrasting mood, by Mozart. Her voice radiates wonderment and a melancholy innocence. When her performance ends, Lee bows gracefully, then heads backstage to await the verdict of her judges.

Ten of the 23 contestants will be awarded the $10,000 first prize and a possible shot at stardom with a company that launched the careers of such legendary figures as Rosa Ponselle and Licia Albanese. Will Lee be one of the lucky few?

For the moment, just having appeared on the Met's fabled stage is an experience the Korean-born soprano struggles to assimilate. The occasion marks a milestone for a young artist whose lifelong passion for music brought her, just two years ago, Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. Her accomplishments in that short time have turned heads even among Peabody faculty accustomed to dealing with talents of world-class potential.

"She is a very determined person, and she realizes that what she has is very special," says Mark Markham, Lee's vocal coach at Peabody. "When you listen to her sound, it's apparent that it comes from some deep place inside her."

Finding that place and drawing inspiration from it is the next challenge Lee has set for herself. She knows she has beauty, musicianship, a thrilling vocal instrument and a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for hard work and sacrifice. And yet her art demands even more: to reach the top of her profession, she now must put aside the strict emotional restraint and self-effacement young Korean women traditionally are taught. Somehow, she must make the emotional leap from one culture to another; she must give herself to the extravagant passions of the operatic heroines she portrays.

"People say I have something special," she acknowledges, "but I don't want to sing just with my voice. I want the voice to have character as well as beautiful sound. I used to think of voice only as sound. But now I think character is more important."

After her performance, Lee is encouraged by the warm praise of her accompanist, Kevin Murphy. He tells her that no matter what happens, she should be very proud of herself.

Lee knows she has given her all today, and has sung well. She also knows the judges will hear many fine singers before the day is out. For now, all she can do is wait.

The journey that brought Byung-Soon Lee to the Metropolitan Opera stage that Sunday in February spans two continents and a cultural divide that separates East from West.

Lee is the middle child of a middle-class family in Seoul, South Korea. Her father owns the Kangwon Bus Co. in Chun Cheon, a city near the capital. Her mother stayed home to raise the children.

Like her older brother and younger sister, Lee was given piano lessons as a young child. But only Lee became a musician.

Today her sister works in a bank and her brother, urged by their father to devote himself to more "masculine" pursuits, became a medical researcher.

"Asian culture says men do politics and stuff, women do arts," recalls Lee. "When my brother was studying piano, he actually wanted to keep going with it. But my father said, 'Don't do that.' He wanted my brother to do math and science."

Beginning piano studies at age 6, Lee was soon practicing up to four hours a day. Her parents also enrolled her in a children's chorus.

"Korean parents are very serious about music study," Lee says. "They are concerned that their kids do what they have to in order to learn, because there's a strong emphasis on education."

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