Samuel Youn took up the title role in Bayreuth's 'The Flying Dutchman' on short notice, following a cancellation by Evgeny Nikitin over an alleged swastika tattoo. DW spoke with Youn about his dream job.
DW: How do you feel following this unusual debut in Bayreuth?
Samuel Youn: I'm pretty surprised myself that I've been able to fill this role, and have been successful at it too. I'm over the moon.
There have always been stories of people jumping in for stars at the last minute - and it's often been a springboard for a major career.
I'm happy that I've had such an opportunity in my lifetime. It's been my first really big break. I was suddenly standing there in the limelight, the world's eyes upon me, and everyone wanted to see and hear me. People were expecting a lot of me - of course, first-class singing, but also, that I would rescue the production following the scandal. My career wasn't the first priority; saving the situation was. That was the most important thing.
There's always an understudy to fill the lead role should it be necessary. But in 100 cases, that may only happen once or twice. Did you come to Bayreuth thinking that might happen?
I didn't find out that would be happen until four hours before the dress rehearsal. Until then, I couldn't even fathom it. Even though, of course, as an understudy I was fully prepared. I grabbed the musical score immediately to make sure I had studied all the notes, but I didn't have much time. Everything happened so fast. I had to go to the costume department, then to make-up; time flew. And then I had only two hours to rehearse with conductor Christian Thielemann - who, of course, is extremely interested in making the best music possible. It was all very last-minute.
It sounds like you didn't even have time to panic...
Exactly. It was a shock at first, but only after the dress rehearsal did I realize what had actually happened. Then I couldn't really sleep for two nights, and before the premiere, I think I only got three or four hours of sleep. I don't know if it was nervousness, but you don't expect to get such a chance at the last minute. It was a big opportunity.
The role of "The Flying Dutchman" was familiar to you. But what did you do in such a short time to prepare musically and also to truly embody the character?
When I take on a role, I am both singer and actor. If you only concentrate on your voice, you won't be able to fill the role of such a complex character as the Dutchman. I concentrated on expressing his very deep-seated pain not just through my voice, but also through my acting. You almost have to take a philosophical approach to it; it really was a big challenge.
Where do you get the energy for such challenges? Is it in your genes, do you eat something special for breakfast, or meditate?
I'm quite religious. I've said quite a few times, even after the premiere, that I wouldn't have been able to do it alone. God helped me; he stood by me, and without His support, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I am Protestant, and I tell people that I have a purpose, and that isn't only standing on stage singing. I got the chance to sing at Bayreuth, but God showed me what I should make out of it: namely, to support other people who need help.
You know, I started off quite small. It's not true that I suddenly had a huge break and became the Dutchman. No, I'd already sung the role in Cologne, and have performed in Paris, at the Scala in Milan and at the Berlin Opera. And it's important to me to stress that I don't just sing for myself, but also to give people something. I'm more than just the Dutchman; I want to inspire people to get back up on their feet.
That almost sounds as though you hope and wish that you can transmit some of your strength through music, and that the audience will be able to receive it.
That's true. Of course, I studied singing for a long time, but that's not enough. What I expressed during the premiere - that doesn't just come from me alone.
You studied in Italy. It is natural for you to think in terms of the bel canto style of singing?
Absolutely. But my training in Milan wasn't easy. Many foreigners study there. When I started in 1994, 3,000 Koreans were studying voice there. I was one of them. We were always encouraged to participate in competitions and in master classes but didn't get any real affirmation or praise for it. I did that for four years, and at the very last competition in which I participated - the "Toti dal Monte" in Treviso - the former Cologne opera director heard my voice and invited me to come to Germany. I've been here ever since.
What are the Koreans all about? In Bayreuth alone, two Koreans are singing lead roles. No orchestra in the Western world manages without Koreans; numerous soloists come from Korea. How do you explain it?
Many people think we have a secret. But the truth is, we work harder than Germans or Europeans in general. That has to do with fact that our language is entirely different and we have to spend twice or three times the amount of time working with the German or Italian texts. It's not just about hearing a voice; the audience also has to understand the text. And traditional Korean music sounds very different, so we have to work very intensively on Western music. It's all the fruit of hard labor.
You were talking about faith earlier. With the Flying Dutchman, we have a figure of the undead seeking redemption. The story has Christian elements, and then again, not. The Dutchman is trapped in a world he cannot escape. How do you address the subject?
The only Christian role I've had until now was "Johanna" in "Salome." I was really glad back then that all the lyrics were from the Bible. With the Dutchman, that's quite different; it's a tragedy about a man who can only come to Earth every seven years to look for a woman who truly loves him and can release him from his sorrows. Of course, the story isn't about real life. Though it's a very unhappy character who must bear a great deal of pain, he also experiences moments of joy. Everyone has his own way of performing the Dutchman. For the premiere, I did keep fairly closely to the director's vision, but I also remained Samuel Youn. I don't want to just copy a character - it would always stay the same that way. Samuel must always remain present. That's my goal.
Samuel Youn is no newcomer to the Bayreuth Festival. The South Korean has performed minor roles in "Parsifal," "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin" since 2005. The bass-baritone studied singing in Seoul, Milan and at the Cologne Music Academy. He gave his opera debut as Mephistopheles in "Faust" at Italy's Teatro Comunale di Treviso. Youn has been a permanent menber of the Cologne Opera ensemble since 1999.
Interview: Rick Fulker
Editor: Louisa Schaefer