Koreana WINTER 1995 Vol.9 No.4
Artist
Philip Kang : A Korean Bass Succeeds on European Stage
Kim Min
Professor of Music / Director
Seoul National University / Seoul Baroque Ensemble
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Most music lovers already know that Kang Byung-woon, or Philip Kang as he is better known to international audiences, has achieved the near impossible; he has made a name for himself as an accomplished bass in Europe's highly competitive operatic community. The average Korean may not have heard of him, however. We live in an age of information, but as I write about Kang, I realize how unbalanced that flow of information is. Cultural news often does not make it back to Korea, but Philip Kang is someone Koreans can all be proud of.
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In Europe, Kang is known for his powerful voice, unusually broad range and vocal flexibility. He made his international debut as the first Asian cast in a major role at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, and from 1988 to 1992 he performed leading roles in Wagner's four-opera Ring Cycle under the direction of the celebrated Argentinean pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
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Wagner's operas, often called the pride of German opera and a synthesis of all German musical drama, run for an average of four hours for each performance, demanding a great deal from both the performers and the audience. It is a rare feat for an Asian vocalist to be recognized as one of the world's great interpreters of Wagner since Asians are generally smaller and thus may have less vocal breadth than their Western counterparts. Prior to Philip Kang's debut, many Asian singers had appeared in Wagner productions but always in minor roles.
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Kang is actually quite a large man with generous features and a broad vocal range to match. In his years with the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, which was founded by the composer himself in 1876, Kang overcame many obstacles to build a solid artistic career with his tenacity and strenuous self-cultivation. Some people succeed without much effort at all and all too often, success forsakes those who work hard. One thing is certain. though: good fortune without effort lacks meaning and will never last long.
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Philip Kang did not achieve success easily. He has practiced tirelessly for the last 20 years, honing his skills until he finally earned the world's praise. I have known Kang nearly 25 years, since around the time he graduated from Seoul National University's College of Music and was preparing to go to Germany to study. Later I met him again in Berlin and have kept a close watch on his career ever since. He studied for many years with Professor Herbert Brauer of the National Academy of Music in Berlin and first stepped onto the professional stage in 1976 when he was selected in an audition with the West Berlin Opera.
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"Over the years, I've felt the disadvantages of being born in a small East Asian country," he once said, "but I've been able to overcome it to a certain extent through my own hard work."
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From 1978 through 1983, Kang performed as a house soloist with some of Germany's most respected opera companies including the Wuppertal, Nuremberg and Mannheim Operas. He has also performed major roles in over 60 operas at opera houses throughout Europe, including those in Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Lisbon, Nice, Zurich, Paris, Brussels, Vienna, Madrid, Rome and London.
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In the 1993-94 season, Kang performed in the Royal Opera production of Mozart's The Magic Flute in London, the Nice Opera's rendition of Wagner's last opera, Parsifal the Berlin National Opera's staging of Wagner's Tannhauser, and the Cologne Opera's productions of Verdi's Rigoletto and Mozart's The Magic Flute.
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Kang's talent is not limited to the opera. His professor, Dr. Brauer, also praises his outstanding ability to sing lieder and oratorio works.
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In addition to his success as a soloist at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, Kang has been a guest performer at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, and a soloist with the Chicago Symphony and numerous opera companies in Paris, Rome and other European cities. He can now choose his roles, while he works for the development of opera in his home country. In 1995, he began teaching young Korean musicians at his alma mater, Seoul National University.
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"I concentrated on my performing career overseas for years, then suddenly I realized more than twenty years had gone by," Kang says. "Performing is important, but so is educating a new generation of Korean musicians. I realize that now. I have the energy and ability now, so I've decided it is time for me to act on my beliefs."
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It is certain that Kang's musical experience and artistic talent will benefit the Korean music community. In that process, he must get closer to the Korean audiences as well as the Korean musical community.
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Kang met his wife, soprano Han Min-hui, when the two were singing in the Oldenburg Opera's staging of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 1978. They were married in 1980. For many years, they followed the same path, sometimes taking lead roles on the same stage as they once did with the Nuremberg Opera, but since 1988 Han has taken leave from her operatic work to devote herself to their four children.
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Star of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, Kang is not only a fine artist, he is also a dedicated family man whose strong religious beliefs and kindness guide him in his everyday life.
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