Cover South Korean soprano Rim Sae-Kyung (Photo: Courtesy of Rim Sae-Kyung)

Rim Sae-Kyung has played the role of Cio-Cio-san more than 100 times. She tells Tatler why she believes her Hong Kong performance will be the best ever

It takes great dedication to perform one role more than 100 times. Just ask Rim Sae-Kyung.

The South Korean soprano will be playing Cio-Cio-san from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for its Hong Kong production. The opera is regarded as one of Puccini’s most melodious operas and Rim hails the title role which also marks her first debut with Opera Hong Kong.

Performing has been in Rim’s blood, going from Asia to Europe to take on iconic roles and winning international competitions along the way. Now, the dramatic Verdian/Verismo soprano will be delighting Hong Kong audiences with another rendition of Cio-Cio-san.

Ahead of her upcoming performance, Tatler caught up with Rim where she tells us why she believes her Hong Kong performance of Cio-Cio-san will be the best ever.

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You’ve been doing opera for many years. How did you first become interested in it?

My first dream was to become a pianist. One day at the piano academy, I happened to sing a nursery rhyme in front of a vocalist, a friend of my teacher. The vocalist who heard my song met my parents in person and convinced them that I should study vocal music in Seoul.

At that time, my family was not in a good shape, and we were living in a very small city. But thanks to the advice of the vocalist, I got my first exposure to the vocal music world.

You studied music at Hanyang University first. Did you always know you wanted to go overseas to study?

My father passed away in an unfortunate car accident, so I was put into a situation where I couldn’t go study abroad. However, such difficult situations strengthened my dream for studying overseas and that eagerness especially became stronger after graduating from Hanyang University. In vocal music, a strong mentality is a very important quality and I was gifted to earn such talent by going through hardships at a younger age.

What’s your favourite opera to watch?

Should I include the new ones? All in all, I try to watch opera with professionalism, but if I have to choose one, I prefer past productions from the 80s and 90s which I get a lot of positive energies that are inexplicable, although the directing and clothing are relatively outdated.

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You’ve performed overseas many times, how does it feel to perform in Hong Kong?

This is my first time performing in Hong Kong. In South Korea, Hong Kong is famous for its prosperity and beautiful sceneries. So, there is a slang among Koreans where we relate Hong Kong with any good or special day: “How lovely that I am here in Hong Kong” now. I’m so happy that it's a great opportunity.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming performance for Madama Butterfly?

The role of Cio-Cio-san should comprehensively express the complex nature of characters, from a 15-year-old pure Japanese girl to a mature woman who realises love, then to a mother who gives birth alone and raising her child, leading to suicide. Whenever the curtain unfolds, it’s necessary to communicate with the audience with sincere sound expressions and acting, so that the audience can live together in the scene at that moment.

Among your many roles, what makes playing Cio-Cio-san very special?

I think Cio-Cio-san is a work that brought me great luck. Whenever I perform in other European festival performances such as Vienna, Arena di Verona, will find myself fully energised and realize the harmony between the East and the West well. I think this role is a perfect fit for an oriental soprano who has lived in Europe for a long time. I believe this Hong Kong performance will probably be the very best one ever.

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You also played Cio-Cio-san at the Opera Australia in Sydney, Arena di Verona, Theatre Dortmund many other places—will you be channelling the same performance and emotion for your role as Cio-Cio-san?

I think I’ve performed Cio-Cio-san more than 100 times. The reason why the feeling of the performance can be different every time is that I try to live in that moment. In Hong Kong, I’m very excited to see what energy Cio-Cio-san will communicate with the audience and be touched by.

Playing Cio-Cio-san many times, how did you prepare when you first got the role? How are you preparing for it now?

I think the hardest thing about this role is endurance. Cio-Cio-san appears a lot in this three-hour opera. As a soprano with a wide vocal range, it requires diversified vocal techniques and spiritual strength when it comes to the acting parts. Above all, stamina distribution and concentration are very important, so I usually control my mind through yoga or breathing practice.

What makes this Madama Butterfly performance different from other versions?

As far as I know, not only myself but also many singers are performing in Hong Kong after a long break due to Covid-19. We are filled with anticipation and very excited for the opportunity to perform on stages again.

Thanks to Opera Hong Kong who planned to perform such a grand production for the Hong Kong audience during this difficult pandemic. This Madama Butterfly in Hong Kong is a performance that harmonises tradition and modern elements. I believe it will be a very successful performance.

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How does it feel working with such an international cast and crew, including Italian director Pier Francesco Maestrini?

It's a truly international casting from all over the world. Even when everyone was in quarantine, we encouraged each other and became very close. I believe this brought us great bonding, and I’m sure we can perform with good teamwork.

In addition, Pier Francesco Maestrini and I performed La Forza del Destino together in Verona in 2016. He’s an outstanding and very gentle director. I’m very happy to be able to collaborate a great work with him again this time.

What are some of your favourite scenes or songs from Madama Butterfly?

All the scenes of Madama Butterfly are very beautiful and touching, but personally, it’s Act 1 “Vogliatemi bene” scene where the window comes out which I like the most. During this part, it’s very sad that Cio-Cio-san believes in true love and treats her love with sincerity, especially with such a beautiful melody. I shed tears every time I sing it.

What other roles and operas do you want to do in the future?

I currently have plans for Verdi’s Attila and Puccini’s Turandot. I hope to challenge many other roles such as Andrea Chénier and La Gioconda.

What else do you want to achieve as an opera singer?

In addition to being an opera performer, I am a professor of vocal music at Chung-Ang University in Korea. I will do my best to guide and take care of students to become great artists on the world stage.

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