Your mother was keen for you to become a singer. Why was that so important to her?
She always wanted to be an opera singer but because of the poverty and the situation in that period – I’m talking about during the Korean War in the ‘50s – it was absolutely impossible to make her dream come true. As soon as she got married and realised she was waiting on a baby – it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl – she decided it was supposed to be a singer. While she was waiting on me in her tummy, 24 hours a day she listened to Maria Callas’s recordings. So, inside of her I already knew that I had to become a singer to make her dream come true.
So did you just love music or did you ever feel pushed into opera?
Yeah, I was pushed by her a lot. I had to play piano eight hours a day at the age of four or five, and if I didn’t finish my mum wouldn’t open the door. I had to do classical ballet and drawing lessons and figure skating on ice. I went to a school to learn how to talk and private teachers came to my house to teach me foreign languages from early morning until midnight. It was a very heavy schedule.
Did you ever think you didn’t want to do it?
I hated my life. I escaped three times from home and before I left I talked to my two younger brothers and said, “Listen, I’m going away so please take care of yourselves. Don’t find me because I’m sure there will be a much better place for a girl who wants to have a little bit of free time to play and do things that all kids do.” But in the end, probably around 9 o’clock – dinner time – I used to come back. My mother took me to the park and told me, “You will never live like me, who married a simple guy. You will be a great singer travelling all over the world, spreading the message of the beauty of music.”
Was your university education in Korea any easier?
I went to Seoul National University, which is very prestigious with the top rank in the country. I had a scholarship and everything, but I met a guy on campus and I was completely, crazily in love. I didn’t do anything, just lots of love with him. After one year my student life was a disaster. The university decided to kick me out, but then I was sent to Italy where I started my life as a real student. It was a good decision, I guess.
Was moving to Italy a huge thing for you?
Of course, I’m talking about 1983. No Internet. No contact with my parents, just through letters and international phone calls every once in a while. As a very young Asian girl, finding myself in Italy with all the good looking guys, and a whole different culture, language and attitudes, it was sort of a cultural shock.
At different times you studied with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Carlo Bergonzi. What did you learn from each of them?
I went to Schwarzkopf to study Lieder, but I was 23 and my foreign language skills were bad. She listened to just two Schubert songs and told me “Your voice is amazing but you don’t know what you are singing. You don’t know the language or philosophers like Goethe. You need to study German or I cannot see you anymore.” So my lesson finished just like that. After such a severe but important message, I took my German lesson every day and after three months I came back [laughs]. She was surprised to see me so soon with quite good German, so then I studied with her for one month.
“You have to be honest, and I’m smart. I truly believe that if you are not smart you cannot really continue in this terribly difficult career“
Bergonzi listened to me and told me that I can be a dramatic soprano, which was for me completely wrong because I’m a coloratura. He was convinced that I can sing Luisa Miller or that kind of role. In the beginning I pretended to sing to make him happy, but after three lessons I had to tell him, “I think you’re completely wrong.” You have to be honest, and I’m smart. I truly believe that if you are not smart you cannot really continue in this terribly difficult career. How many young singers today start very brilliantly and somehow disappear? But I’m still here after 30 years, so there must be something I did right?
You’ve sung for some of the great maestros. Was that ever daunting for a young singer?
I’m sort of fearless. I’ve never been afraid of anyone in any situation. That’s my character. I wasn’t afraid to tell them what I wanted musically. Usually these maestros understood and were satisfied with what I wanted. I’m so glad all those great musicians respected me.
Did you get help and learn a lot from them?
Maestro von Karajan, for sure, opened the door to all the famous opera houses and recording companies. That was huge for me. But each maestro, like Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, James Levine and Solti, they gave lots of energy and humanity also. I learned a lot. Good stuff, especially from Lorin Maazel. From him I learned that our job is a serious matter, but also you can enjoy your life outside of the theatre. You can have friends, family and you can also walk in the park with a newspaper in your hand without thinking of the score.
You’ve been at the top for 30 years. How do you keep your voice in shape?
I wouldn’t tell you all my secrets, because you’d have to pay me [laughs]. But what I can say is that first of all you must know your voice and your throat well. Because my voice is a coloratura I have to choose my repertoire very carefully. Sometimes I do crossover – I performed with Bocelli outside with a microphone in front of 20,000 people two months ago, and I sang the Oscar-nominated song in the film Youth this year – but after that kind of not very operatic repertoire, I know how to come back to my original voice.
You’ve recently become an UNESCO Artist for Peace. Is there a particular way you hope to use that position to make a difference?
Of course, at the end of the day, singing is not only for high class or intellectual people. Classical music is made for everybody. Music is a great weapon and has a power to unite all kinds of people. You know, most of my job is gathering money. I do charity concerts and ask people to donate, and then we use that money in Africa and Asia, especially for education for kids. I go to Vietnam, I go to the Philippines – countries where music is a luxury as people need to survive and find food – and all my fees are donated to UNICEF. I also donate for animal protection, because I have enough. I’m not super rich, but I know how to earn. I don’t want a yacht or a private jet, I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve never sung for money. What makes me happy is sharing.
I believe you have strong political views about your own country. Do you think it will ever be reunited?
Definitely, it has to happen. I think it’s 71 years we are divided. How is that possible? Even if the North has incredible difficulties and poverty and is very badly organised, I’m sure that each South Korean wants to be united. I know all the stories you hear from the media. People are afraid of the missiles and the crazy things that Mr Kim does in North Korea, but I’m very positive that it’s going to happen and quite soon. And if it happens, I know what to do. On that incredible day, the most happy day of my life, I want to go to North Korea and grab all the kids and sing for them and teach them all the songs I used to sing when I was a kid. And we will dance and eat lots of sweet cakes and lots of chocolates. I’ll make a huge party for the kids.