Ju Hyeon Han, a young singing student at Stony Brook University (SBU) in New York, has made opera history. As reported by Slipped Disc, Han, who lost her sight when she was a baby, played the role of Female Chorus in two performances of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia last month. According to SBU, the South Korea-born soprano is the first blind singer to be cast in a leading role in an American conservatory or university opera production.

Ju Hyeon Han performing as Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia. Photograph © Stony Brook Opera

Han is currently in her fourth year of a Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance degree at SBU. The Rape of Lucretia marked her first performance in a fully staged opera. Before taking on the major role for Stony Brook Opera the singer – who has a two-and-a-half-octave range and also plays piano, flute and violin – performed with the Baroque Ensemble, the Stony Brook University Orchestra and the Stony Brook Chorale.

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a burning desire to sing and make music my life,” said Han. “I feel so honoured that Stony Brook gave me this amazing opportunity. So many people told me that it would never happen, that opera would be impossible for me and I shouldn’t even try. However, the SBU voice faculty are very open-minded and they wholeheartedly embrace the belief that a university is an educational institution so that I should get the same education and opportunities that my sighted colleagues are getting.”

The performance naturally posed some challenges for which solutions were found. Unable to get visual cues, the tenacious singer put in extra work to learn the musical score. “She has perfect pitch and a very quick memory and is quite independent. Because she cannot see, she often learns scores more completely than sighted singers. She’s acutely aware of orchestrations and beats,” conductor Tim Long said.

Director Ted Altschuler decided to use Han’s blindness as part of her character, attributing her lack of sight to a war injury. “I haven’t had to pretend to be something I’m not and this permitted me to really get inside of the character of the Female Chorus, draw from my own life experiences, from the libretto and the music, and make the character my own,” said Han.

Throughout rehearsals, fellow cast members watched out for her as she moved around the stage and made sure that she wouldn’t get too close to the orchestra pit. Props were placed to guide her. “I knew where I was at all times and never felt unsafe,” she said.

Perry Goldstein, chair of SBU’s Department of Music, is full of praise. “Since Ju Hyeon came to Stony Brook, she has overcome every obstacle in the way of getting the most out of her education. She is carrying a perfect grade point average and she has never shied away from a challenge. She approaches everything with great humour and a ‘can-do’ attitude that is an inspiration.”

Born in Seoul, Han went to New Zealand to study and in 2008 received a Bachelor of Music Honours in Vocal Performance from the University of Auckland.  She continued her studies in the US, earning a Master of Music in Vocal Performance and in Vocal Pedagogy at New England Conservatory, and a Professional Studies Certificate in Voice at Manhattan School of Music.

Once she completes her studies, Han hopes to pursue a career as a concert singer specialising in art song recitals, contemporary music and oratorios. She also plans to teach, and has a special interest in working with under-privileged or special needs children and young adults.

Han is not the first vision-impaired opera singer to make singing a career. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who lost his sight at the age of 12, is one of the best known performers in the world today. Australian tenor Michael Leonardi, diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at the age of six, started his career at the age of 15. Amongst many other engagements, he performed in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI at the World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 and in 2010 sang in Modena at a memorial concert for the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Michael LeonardiMichael Leonardi

Appearing at last year’s Carols By Candlelight at the Melbourne Sidney Meyer Music Bowl, Leonardi met nine-year old Lilly Cascun, a member of the Australian Girls’ Choir, who has been blind from birth, for a private mentoring session. “My ultimate dream would be to sing at Carols [by Candlelight] and to become a famous musician like Andrea Bocelli … and to show people that if you have a disability it doesn’t matter,” Cascun told ABC News. “It’s just like people break their leg. You can still do whatever you want. Don’t give up and always follow your dreams.”