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A Magnificent and Tender Voice of Emotion
A Magnificent and Tender Voice of Emotion

Gihoon Kim (Dept. of Voice, '10), the first Korean winner of aria category, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World

(Credit: BBC / Arts&Artists)

A Voice That Captivated the Entire World


Baritone singer Gihoon Kim became the first Korean to win the aria category of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021 in June. Yonsei alumnus Kim (Department of Voice, entering class of '10) began his singing career later than others, but he rose to the top faster than anyone else, receiving praise from all over the world at the world’s prestigious competition. His low and magnificent voice, which is soft and delicate at the same time, captivated the hearts of people from around the world as his performance was aired through the BBC channel, the British public broadcast.



A Late Entrance into Singing


It is common for many musicians to start training from childhood and mature through special training. Despite their natural talents, many of them go through excessive practice to produce the most beautiful and high-quality performances. However, Gihoon did not start singing until he became a senior in high school in Gokseong, South Jeolla Province, where there was little musical infrastructure. He used to be a member of a band as he enjoyed singing and playing instruments, but he did not expect himself to major in vocal music. He belatedly discovered his talent for vocal music thanks to the recommendation by a professor who happened to hear him singing at a church choir seminar. Although he started late, he was like a hidden diamond, and received praises from experts that he would become a world-class vocalist.


“I studied hard until the first year of high school; however, I began to wander after getting into a conflict with my teacher. I always had a question mark on what I could do best. And the professor who came to the church choir seminar was so surprised to hear that I had never been trained on how to sing. I knew I was capable of singing in a vocal tone, but I dismissed it as mimicking vocal music. I wanted to find out if it was a real talent. My parents were opposed to me majoring in vocal music, so I had to negotiate my way through. I persuaded them that if I receive mediocre reaction from expert tests, I would give up. Instead, I asked them to let me learn singing If I get rave reviews or hear that I’m a genius. Fortunately, I heard that I could become a world-class vocalist at the expert test, and started training. I was able to find the answer to the questions that I had in mind.”


After deciding on his career path, he fiercely prepared for the entrance examination for university, receiving lessons by travelling from Gokseong to Gwangju almost everyday. He chose Yonsei University without any hesitation. During his first year of high school, he had a chance to visit the campus and fell in love with Yonsei. He was able to keep the promise that he made with a friend to “enter this university no matter what.”



Sing Like a Tenor: A Lesson to Overcome Frustration


Gihoon experienced the biggest frustration of his life after completing his duty in the army. He was diagnosed with vocal cord nodules, a deadly diagnosis for vocalists. He wondered if he should give up on singing.


“I had to do so much in the army as I was capable of singing, dancing and playing instruments. That’s why my vocal cords kept getting strained and eventually it led to vocal cord nodules. I was not able to believe it. I tried all sorts of things to overcome the situation, but my skills got worse. I wondered if I should let go of vocal music. But Professor Kwan-dong Kim gave me a lot of strength. He did not give up on me. He advised me to sing like a tenor. Since my voice wasn’t working properly, I tried to find a way to sing more heavily and powerfully, and that was actually the problem. As I started to sing lightly like a tenor, following Professor Kim’s advice, my voice as well as my singing skills got better.”


Gihoon Kim spent much of his campus life in a practice room. It was where he spent much time pondering on how to improve his sing skills and practicing diligently. It was also where he overcame his frustration and strengthened his skills while dreaming of becoming a world-class vocalist. Such time piled up, and it eventually led to him graduating at the top of his class, surpassing his colleagues who had sharpened their skills since childhood. In addition, he was selected for an exchange program between Yonsei University and Staatsoper Hannover (Hannover National Opera House) where he grabbed the opportunity to become an intern at the Hannover National Theatre, which is given to only one outstanding person.


“I became the ‘last person standing’ which was selected after a month of training. So I was hired by Staatsoper Hannover for a year and went to Germany. I also wanted to pursue academics a little more, so I negotiated with the theater that I will also do my master’s degree along with the internship. Since I was selected very suddenly, I did not even know how to speak German; yet, I had to work and study simultaneously. I was able to improve my language skills by looking into the dictionary vigorously and starting conversations with others first.”


Although his days in Germany were not easy, his experiences on the stage with professionals at Staatsoper Hannover gave him the power to overcome the tough days. Also, learning at the Hannover University of Music, Drama (HMTMH) and Media allowed him to sharpen more practical skills. A year later, Gihoon was offered to be promoted to soloist from Staatsoper Hannover, starring in a number of works including “Rigoletto” and “Salome.” He was also able to graduate with a unanimously perfect score for his master’s degree at the HMTMH and he is currently taking the top performance course at the same university. With this sold musicality, exceptional capabilities in singing and expression, Gihoon has been on the world stage as a freelancer since the 2019/20 season.



(Credit: BBC / Arts&Artists)

Being on the World Stage, Being Recognized as the Best


Gihoon Kim clearly marked his presence on the world stage in 2019. He won the second place in the men’s vocal category from the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition, followed by the second place and the Audience Award in the Plácido Domingo's Operalia, consecutively. The International Tchaikovsky Competition held at the Mariinsky Theatre, in particular, was one of the best stages that Gihoon will never forget.


“In fact, I feel inadequate on every stage. However, I will never forget the final stage of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. I had to sing Tchaikovsky's song and aria, but I’ve never spoken Russian before, so it was hard to imitate the pronunciation itself. So I prepared for the competition more diligently than ever. When the final stage was over, the applause and cheers from the audience seemed to be coming like a tsunami. It was the greatest applause and cheers of my life. I will never forget that overwhelming moment.”


Judges and critics said that his performance “reminded (them) of Russian baritone Dmitry.” They added that, “in the world without Dmitry, Kim would entertain the world audience again.” His performance drew the best response from the audience, so when he was called second, singers from the Mariinsky Theatre went to the judges to protest why he was not the winner. The second best position was a disappointing result, but the stage itself was overwhelmingly touching for Gihoon Kim.


But there is another moment of supreme joy for him. It was when he won the aria category at the 20th BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition held in Wales, United Kingdom, on June 19, 2021. The competition, which is held every two years and broadcast live by the BBC, awards in two categories: “Song Prize,” where competitors sing a song with piano accompaniment, and “Main Prize,” where competitors sing an opera aria with orchestra in the background.


Gihoon Kim proudly won the aria category with his outstanding skills. In fact, his victory was already predicted in the first round. Two of the judges who listened to him singing "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Korngold’s opera “The Dead City” were moved to tears. The two judges were world-renowned vocalists Roberta Alexander and Neil Davies.


“I had no idea that the judges cried after listening to my song. I actually thought I ruined as the judges didn’t look so good. A colleague of mine told me that the judges cried after he saw the performance video the next day. I couldn’t believe it at first. When I replayed the video and it was true. However, I didn’t expect to win because my condition fluctuated and my throat was not so good in the final round. After the competition, the two judges told me, “We’ve already decided that you would be the winner after your performance in the first round.” It was such an honor and the best moment ever.”


A critic, who reviews performances by vocalists at the end of every competition, even said “Fenomenale!” which is the best praise far beyond excellence. Although the competition was held without the audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, if the stage were full, Gihoon would have received more cheers and applause than he had ever had before. The whole world was fascinated by his phenomenal performance. His name was to be imprinted around the world as a top-class baritone.



Inspiration Always Comes from Learning


Gihoon Kim has never been one hundred percent satisfied with his performances as he always felt lacking. But he says that he is not a perfectionist himself. It is that every musician always seeks for perfection. Although he gets nervous while performing on big stages, but he tries not to have a special routine or jinx to be perfect.


“Many musicians have a few to many routines of their own after going through bloody practices. The same goes for sports players. One of the famous tennis players has a fixed routine for putting a bottle of water or sweeping his head. But I think making a routine can ruin me because it is over when you twist any of the routines that you have to keep. I actually think that would be an excuse, saying that I ruined the performance because I was not able to keep my routines.”


Thus, Gihoon tries not to be frustrated or intimated by occasional slumps. He naturally thinks that it would make him grow again. He marks that there is something to learn from everything. He tries to learn and get inspiration from not only his failures, but also from other competitors at every level. His role model is Piero Cappuccilli (1926-2005), who was the best vocalist of the 20th century and was able to play as many as 17 roles among Verdi’s operas. Gihoon Kim, who says that his voice fits well with Verdi’s operas, wants to resemble every aspect of Cappuccilli, including sounds, volumes, breathing, and expression. But he also says, “eventually I need to express my own voice, so I want to learn from him rather than copy him.”


As he grew up one stage at a time, Gihoon Kim is now ready to accept every stage with more comfort. It has always been difficult to sing without mistakes in front of a large audience.


“Back in the old days, I was so nervous every time I went on a stage. But one day, all of a sudden, I realized that there was no reason for me to be scared. The audience came to the performance to listen to me singing, so all I had to do is perform well for them. Since my view on performing changed, I was able to enjoy going onto the stage way more. I get the biggest catharsis and sense of accomplishment from feeling the audience’s response and exchanging energy with them through singing.”



(Credit: Arts&Artists)

For the Day Standing on the Dream Stage


Due to the COVID restrictions, there has been a few face-to-face performances where Gihoon could feel the thrill of sharing the energy with the audience. However, he had been running breathlessly for years without a single break, so he takes this meantime as a time to refresh himself and a time to spend with his family. In fact, he is expected to be busy again very soon. He will be performing “La bohème” at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany and at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, Poland; he is also to perform “Così fan tutte” at the San Diego Opera in the United States.


The final goal for Gihoon is “to become a symbolic figure that audience will think of immediately when they hear ‘baritone.’” Thus, he wants to perform on all global includes, including the Metropolitan, which is the stage of dreams for him. Along with his aspiration to become an accomplished vocalist, he is eager to contribute to society as well. He makes a remark that the juniors with the same dream as him to be never complacent.


“I hope that you would not be complacent after doing a good performance in one particular stage. You need to objectively see how good you are. You do not need to be affected by what others say, but there is no end to learning. I hope you do not become narrow-minded and that you would expand your horizon. Never stay satisfied with what you have now. Musicians should learn throughout their life. I entered this career late, but I always sought passionately on what I had to do first to get better. If you’re hesitant about choosing your career path, try to picture something realistic rather than something vague.”


Gihoon Kim gives a message of support to everyone who is going through difficult times through “Nessun Dorma (Non shall sleep.)” by Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” The dynamic aria which ends with the phrase “Vincerò, Vincerò! (Will win!)” is the best description for him with a shining trophy.

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