Eva Kong is in a very enviable position right now; as far as we can tell she is currently the only Australian opera singer to be in a studio with a director and cast rehearsing a fully staged production of an opera.

Kong – who was born in South Korea, but is now based in Brisbane – is currently in Seoul where she will make her debut as Manon in Massenet’s 1884 opera on June 26. A few days ago, she thought she’d be performing in front of a real, socially distanced audience, but a new spike in coronavirus cases in Seoul has put paid to that, with the government re-tightening restrictions around public gathering. Instead the production will now be live streamed via three different platforms. On top of that, the cast will be wearing transparent face protectors.

Eva Kong in rehearsals for Manon at Korea National Opera. Photograph supplied

Ironically, were it not for the coronavirus, Kong wouldn’t be playing the role. When Korea National Opera first offered her Manon, she had to decline as she had already signed a contract to cover Princess Eudoxie in La Juive for Opera Australia, and the dates clashed.

“I was devastated when they offered it to me but what can you do? You have signed a contract and you have to honour that,” says Kong, chatting to Limelight from Seoul.

“I have this family issue in Korea. My mum had a really bad car accident two years ago; she lost her two legs, amputated above the knee, both of them, so that’s why I wanted to come back to Korea. I did La Traviata with the company last year because of her.”

Kong would have loved to have done Manon in South Korea and taken the opportunity to spend more time with her mother but when the offer was first made it seemed impossible. Then the coronavirus hit. Kong was in Sydney rehearsing Opera Australia’s new Ring Cycle – in which she will play Woglinde – when performance venues began to close in mid-March. A few weeks later, Korean National Opera came back to her with another offer to play Manon. Opera Australia decided to release her from La Juive (which was subsequently cancelled in May along the rest of the OA Sydney Winter season) and Kong was ecstatic to be able to accept the role.

Mind you, getting her to Seoul took a lot of organisation, with her manager Patrick Togher working around the clock to arrange the right exemptions to make it happen. Kong arrived in Seoul on May 20 and spent two weeks in quarantine.

“It was horrible!” she says, laughing merrily. “I was in a hotel and I couldn’t open up my door. If you open the door there is a broadcaster with a speaker [saying] ‘Room 402, close the door, this is the final warning’. And at 1pm and 6pm we get the speaker saying ‘your meal has been delivered, now you can open the door’. You can’t open the window. At the end I had really bad panic attacks. I really wouldn’t want to do it again,” she says.

Still, she used the time to practise. “I put the mattresses on the floor and the yoga mat on the door, I made a sound proof system by myself so I could sing four hours a day,” she says laughing. “I couldn’t get any pianist because of this pandemic, I can’t visit anyone, and I had to learn it all by myself.”

Eva Kong. Photograph supplied

The Korea National Opera has introduced rigorous safety measures. “The first thing is when you enter the building there is a face temperature scanner. When you put in your pass you have to scan your face so they can measure your temperature, and then just before you go into the rehearsal room someone measures your temperature,” says Kong.

The cast also wear transparent visors. “We have to, but it’s really good because we can breathe, the director can see our facial expression, and in a way we can hear our voice better, and also we can do the kiss scene 100 times, no problem!” says Kong.

Asked if the visors steam up when the performers sing, Kong says not. “They are brilliant. The best thing is that you can wash it with soap and use it over and over again. I just sent it to Opera Australia so they can have a look. While I am here, I can connect [OA] with the Korean company. I think this is a brilliant product.”

Kong says that the performers (who are all Korean) are doing everything they can to avoid picking up the coronavirus. “We are being really careful. We don’t go out for dinner or lunch or anything, we just keep the social distancing really clear. But for rehearsals we can’t do that. For Manon we have to kiss [through the masks] and we have to touch each other so we decide we have to look after each other and in order to do that we have decided not to go out at all.”

Kong says she is being extremely well looked after by her Korean manager. “She is looking after me brilliantly. She gets all the things for me, food, water, everything, she drives me up to rehearsals, picks me up from rehearsals so I don’t have to use any public transportation. So I am just basically being like the flower in the greenhouse!” she says.

Kong is chatting to Limelight after her first full run with the chorus and she is clearly on a high. “It was brilliant, just brilliant! It’s my debut as Manon but I’m already in love with this role,” she enthuses.

Based on Abbé Prévost’s controversial 1731 novel Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, Massenet’s opera tells the story of Manon, a young woman who falls passionately in love with the student Des Grieux. But Manon also longs for luxury and excitement, and is seduced by the nobleman De Brétigny, becoming his mistress. In doing so, she pays the ultimate price.

Eva Kong rehearsing Manon at Korea National Opera. Photograph supplied

The Korea National Opera production, which was first staged in 2018, is helmed by French director Vincent Boussard. “He is one of my mentors and he is just brilliant!” says Kong. “He is a really good friend of Nicole Car actually and [her husband] Etienne [Dupuis]. We share a lot of friends like Michael Fabiano, so we have become such close friends. It is such a great company to be in right now. Nobody is doing a full company rehearsal like this, no one is putting on a production with full costume, full orchestra, full choristers. Of course we don’t have an audience yet but at least we are doing a full production. It’s such an amazing opportunity.”

As for the role of Manon – one of the great female roles in opera – she is a dreamer and a chameleon; an innocent ingénue and a temptress, so it requires sensitive acting. Her music, meanwhile, ranges from the sweet Act 1 aria Je suis encore tout étourdie (I am still completely dazed) to the lively gavotte Obéissons quand leur voix appellee (Let us obey when their voice calls us), to the heartrending Act 3 duet with Des Grieux, Ah, fuyez douce image (Ah, flee, sweet image).

“I think I am born to do this role,” says Kong. “I just love it! In Act 1 and Act 2 she is just so pure in a way, then in Act 3 she becomes a queen, and in Act 4 she is really a drug addict. And then at the end, she is out of her mind and she sees all these shiny things in her mind, in her imagination – ‘look at that diamond, I am going to become a coquette again’.  I think she wants to become that young, sweet coquette again, just before she dies.”

Kong feels that musically the part sits beautifully in her voice. “That French accent, everything feels right. The dialogue is beautiful as well,” she says. “Australian people should hear me! I don’t say this often, but it’s such a perfect role for me.”

Eva Kong plays Manon for Korean National Opera, streaming live on June 26 at 8.30pm AEST at Naver TV https://tv.naver.com/l/48430
or VLIVE https://www.vlive.tv/video/198236 

And on Sunday June 28 at 4pm AEST at NaverTV https://tv.naver.com/l/48477   or VLIVE https://www.vlive.tv/video/198387