The house lights go down and “Robert” Heepyoung Oh parts the curtains, steps into the spotlight and begins to sing the prologue in Pagliacci. He is Tonio, sent to remind the audience that actors are human beings who laugh and cry the same as the characters they play. When his last note ends, the applause begins, and it goes on for a minute, maybe two; an extraordinary amount of time for that piece. “Bravo! Bravo!” rings from the audience.
“His inclination — I could see it in his face — was to walk off,” says Thomas Goodheart, assistant professor of voice. “But the audience wouldn’t let him leave the stage.”
During the prolonged applause, Goodheart had a moment to reflect. Robert had arrived at Binghamton University with one of the best voices the opera program had ever had, but little to show for experience on his résumé.
“Fresh on my mind were thoughts of how hard he had worked, his lack of experience, coming to the States and winning competitions and singing with this program. Every time someone yelled bravo, it registered in his face. I thought he was caught off guard.”
“It was a special experience for me,” Robert says.
Opera wouldn’t be opera without grandeur and drama. Neither, it turns out, would a story about opera singers. Robert is not a solo act; he is one of three students who came here from Korea with voices of a caliber not heard at Binghamton in years.
Robert, 37, is a baritone; he’s serious, like the villains he sometimes plays. Tenor “Mario” Eunhwan Bae, 34, is controlled and calm, almost shy. Hana Ryu, 31, also a tenor, has the exuberance of a pop star. They became friends at the Korean National University of Arts (K-Arts) in Seoul and, years later, Mario and Hana followed Robert to Binghamton — three of just seven students pursuing a master of music degree in opera.
How they ended up here was partly necessity — Korea is the size of Kentucky, with more talent than it can support — and some of it was luck. When Robert finished at K-Arts, he stayed on to work and teach and save money to study abroad. He married, his voice matured, and he spent years mastering vocal techniques that did not seem to come naturally to him. But time was passing. At 34, he left for the University of Texas. A year later, he was being urged to go East.
“Teachers and people said, ‘You have to go to New York, why are you staying here?’” Robert says.
By chance, he heard about Binghamton, one of the few schools in the nation in which a graduate student can perform with a local, professional opera company, the Tri-Cities Opera (TCO). Most opera companies relegate resident artists to small roles; TCO will cast theirs in leading roles. Binghamton and TCO team up to ensure students receive proper instruction and practical experience.
To the men, the program was irresistible. Robert and Mario arrived in 2011; Hana came a year later.
“Normally Korean singers study in Europe,” Hana says. “But we chose here because there is more opportunity. America is a hub for financial, business, arts, especially music. And we want to study English.”
“I prepared to go to Italy because it is the origin of opera,” Mario says. “But New York is the dream place of artists. So I think my decision was the perfect choice.”
“I think it’s the best program in the United States,” Robert says.
Mary Burgess, associate professor of voice, is asked to recall her reaction the first time she heard Robert and Mario sing.
Her eyes get big and her arms stretch wide — “Oh, my god!” she laughs. “I don’t know how to put it in words.”
They were singers with mature voices who were prepared for the stage, she says. “They knew exactly how to be ‘sound machines.’ That’s what big opera singers are (because we don’t sing with amplification). They were outstanding.
“No other school has voices like that in their graduate program,” Burgess says.
“They are the biggest voice talents we’ve had in the opera program, and we’ve had some really wonderful ones,” Burgess says, such as Todd Geer, MM ’93; Judy Berry, MM ’82; Marietta Simpson, MM ’83; and Guido Le Bron, MA ’87.
“Robert is a Verdi baritone — that’s a way of saying he has a really large voice with a high extension, and those guys take a while to mature,” Burgess says. Comparing Robert with baritone Timothy LeFebvre, MM ’93, she says that LeFebvre, who also sings Verdi, is a better musician, “but his voice isn’t as bazang!”
When Robert, Mario and Hana are in the spotlight, that light shines not just on them but also on the University and the TCO.
“TCO has been able to schedule works that require exceptional talent,” says Reed Smith, TCO general director.
In fall 2012, TCO staged Il Trovatore for the first time in more than 30 years. It’s an expensive opera to produce; it takes five lead singers, Burgess explains. With Robert singing the role of Count de Luna, and resident artists and master’s students in other roles, TCO could afford to hire the talent it needed to fill out the cast.
“Robert made it possible for TCO to consider doing operas that they would not have been able to cast as easily,” she says.
Like athletes, musicians compete — to hone their skills, measure themselves against others and gain name recognition. In February, Robert shared grand prize in the Metropolitan International Vocal Competition, which means he will be a featured soloist at a concert in the Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall next year.
“The three are getting standing ovations and winning competitions. They’re getting national and international exposure for themselves and the University,” Goodheart says. “What Robert did for us by winning that Metropolitan competition, that is bigger than anything. That meant a lot of people in New York City saw that and said, ‘What’s happening at Binghamton?’”
Most people don’t follow opera competitions. But 10.7 million people watched last summer’s finale of America’s Got Talent — a television show that might have made Hana a star.
He was part of a singing trio called Forte, whose Los Angeles performance (televised June 25) drew a standing ovation from the audience and the judges, who appeared stunned by their talent. “You guys are phenomenal,” one said.
Hana was on top of the world; Forte was on its way to the next round and, maybe, the $1 million prize. And then came the e-mail.
“Sad news,” Hana wrote. He could not continue because of his lack of citizenship. Forte has gone on in the competition with another singer in Hana’s place.
On stage, the men can sing in Italian, German, French and English — and do it with feeling. But that’s a function of phonetics and acting. In the classroom, the need to speak and understand English is real, and that has been a challenge for the teachers and the students.
“We found out with Robert and Mario that it’s not a good idea to accept students if they don’t speak a decent amount of English, then expect them to get better in English as a Second Language classes,” Burgess says.
For the student, failure to become fluent in a second language can limit performance options abroad. And with so few opportunities for resident artists in the United States — there are perhaps 40, Goodheart guesses — the stakes are high for non-English-speaking singers who want to stay here.
Each of the men says Binghamton has prepared him well for wherever his career takes him.
“Binghamton made me professional,” Hana says. “I’m not afraid about my future because I’m prepared.” He has another year of master’s work.
Robert will be an artist in residence at TCO and graduate in December.
Mario returned to Korea with his wife and son after graduating in May, his determination and voice even stronger.
“My voice cannot last long if I don’t use precise vocal skill. In Binghamton I met Professor Tom. I learned necessary techniques and communication skill with the audience. Most of all, I performed Rodolfo in La Bohème, which is the most challenging role for a tenor. I got self-confidence. So I really want to say thank you to Tom — but it is not flattery, it’s true.”
What does “bazang!” sound like? Click here and then on The Voices of Binghamton Opera video.