Last year I reviewed several of Opera Queensland’s individual recital showcases featuring their performers, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. There’s something wonderful about being able to see such talented singers up close, rather than at arm’s length in a concert hall, and it’s a real delight to hear each performer’s choice of program, too.

Eva Kong. Photo courtesy of Opera Queensland

I last saw soprano Eva Kong in Opera Queensland’s fabulous production of John Adams’ A Flowering Tree, which I was absolutely enchanted by. In this recital, held in the Opera Queensland Studio in Brisbane’s South Bank, she chose a fabulous mix of mostly rather dramatic repertoire (well, just look at the title of the concert – Death Becomes Her), with some very familiar arias indeed. The theme running through the recital here is operatic death scenes (Kong says “I actually feel more alive after each death scene, with a greater appreciation for life”), but there’s a few other dramatic moments interspersed throughout, too. Accompanied by pianist Alex Raineri, this was a top-notch performance, although one structured in a rather unusual way.

We began with Kong accompanying herself on the piano in (I think) a Korean song – although Kong didn’t mention what this was; it was a simple and charming start to the program. Throughout the recital, Kong discussed her early life, including her training as a star pianist (hence the introductory piece). These stories interspersed throughout, well-told and always with a neat punchline, built a strong theme for the recital. Describing her feelings about performing as a pianist at a young age, she turned to two Debussy songs.

Debussy’s Quatre chansons de jeunesse are early works – this is late-teen Debussy, writing in a white-hot flash of inspiration for amateur soprano Marie-Blanche Vasnier. Even at such a young age, his compositional style is very distinctive. Kong sang the first and last of the set, Pantomine and Apparition, with strength, Debussy’s vocal demands no challenge for her at all. Apparition was particularly successful in conjuring up eerie colours.

Kong next described her intense desire to become a singer, finding herself frustrated by performing as a pianist, segueing into Gounod’s Je veux vivre (Juliette’s waltz song) from his Roméo et Juliette. Here, Kong’s skill was on full display, with the simplicity of the opening bars leading seamlessly to some of the dramatic runs later in the aria.

The next few songs saw Kong describing some of her performance highlights, linking them back to the dramatic thread of the concert. Violetta’s death scene, Addio, del passato from Verdi’s La Traviata was given a fine reading, before accompanist Raineri took over, allowing Kong a brief break. As Raineri noted, it’s not often that opera singers are required to sing at full power for an hour. He chose Balakirev’s incredibly virtuosic transcription of Glinka’s The Lark, impressing with a masterful command of the rollercoaster runs, trills, and arpeggios.

The final part of the recital brought us Mozart’s Porgi amor from Le Nozze di Figaro, complete with a neat plug for an Opera Queensland performance later in the year. Although not a death scene, the drama of the Countess’ lamentation was beautifully sung by Kong.

A pair of Puccini classics completed the recital. Tu che di gel sei cinta, Liù’s death scene from Turandot, really demonstrated the intensity of Kong’s voice, with the thunderous piano conclusion serving to really drive the point home. The favourite Un bel dì vedremo from Madama Butterfly is of course achingly beautiful, where Cio-Cio San describes in detailed her dream of her love B.F. Pinkerton returning. Here, Kong described her optimism whenever performing the role, and sang with intelligence and verve throughout – I noticed a few people in the audience discreetly dabbing at their eyes at the conclusion of the song.

Kong gave two encores to this top-notch concert. The first was Woon-Young Na’s setting of Psalm 23, a wonderfully gentle piece, before finishing with the vibrant Sì, mi chiamano Mimì from Puccini’s La Bohème.

With a title like Death Becomes Her, I was prepared for this recital to be maudlin, or even downright depressing, but Kong’s well-chosen program, entertaining story-telling, and good humour (not to mention her absolute skill as a singer) meant that this was a thoroughly enjoyable recital.

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