The intangible beauty of Italian Opera Singing

Korean soprano Karah Son shares her infatuation with Italian opera, which led her to conquer the stages of many opera houses around the world.

Every year, UNESCO receives submissions from all over the world about potential additions of cultural practices and expressions to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Earlier this year, Italy nominated "The Art of the Italian Opera Singing" to be included in light of the fact that opera originated in the Italian peninsula. From there, it quickly crossed borders and spread to Europe and then to all the other continents. Today, opera is a global phenomenon, and futuristic opera houses continue being built in every corner of the planet, from Oslo to Dubai, from Valencia to Beijing.

While we wait to discover whether UNESCO will accept Italy's submission, we meet soprano Karah Son, who has just returned to Seoul after a long tourneé that took her from Australia to France. In Sydney, she performed as Turandot in Puccini's eponymous opera and as Desdemona in Othello, while in France she interpreted Madame Butterfly, one of the roles she gets assigned most frequently because her looks match the part. Karah's favorite character, though, is Floria Tosca, the famous Italian opera singer who "lived of art and love." Karah loves this opera by Puccini because of its arias, its historic background, and the drama that unfolds, and because, of course, she can naturally identify with Tosca. Natural is also her relationship with the Italian language, which she calls her "second mother tongue."

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Karah Son

When she was only 14 years old, Karah went to see her first opera and she was "struck by a lightning." Watching Puccini's Manon Lescaut that night, Karah decided that she would pursue that dream life of being on stage and singing. In particular, she made two resolutions: that one day she would move to the country where opera was born and that she would become an acclaimed opera singer. And she achieved both. After graduating from Yonsei University (Seoul) and learning Italian for 4 years, Karah moved to Italy, where she studied at the Vivaldi Music Conservatory in Novara. Her dream of becoming an opera singer, however, endured some challenges, and she often doubted her own abilities and whether she could work in Italy as a Korean opera singer. After giving birth to her son and on the point of abandoning hope of becoming a famous soprano, she met internationally renowned soprano Mirella Freni, who "rescued" her from quitting. 

She then won a generous scholarship from the Italian government to attend the Accademia di Bel Canto in Modena under the guidance of Mirella Freni for 3 years. Karah lived in Milan and also in Berlin for many years, but she has made Seoul her permanent home, even though she continues traveling and often misses home. In fact, the aria she prefers singing is "O cieli azzurri" from Verdi's opera Aida, because not only is it technically the one that she feels she can interpret best but also because she loves the lyrics: Karah identifies with Aida's fears that she will never see her homeland again. 

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Karah Son as Liu in Turandot, Sydney Opera House, 2022

But Karah does not intend to stop, and her dream today is to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House of New York. Next year, she is going to perform in San Francisco to celebrate the centennial of its opera house, bringing her one step closer to becoming "the Madama Butterfly of the century."

Interestingly, although there are many beautiful operas in various languages, Karah prefers to sing in Italian, first of all because she speaks it fluently, and second  - of course  - because its vowels and syllables make it the best language for music. Moreover, her favorite place to perform remains Italy. According to Karah, Italian audiences are the hardest to please, mainly because people who go to the opera understand the lyrics, and she becomes very self-conscious about making pronunciation errors. At the same time, she loves performing in Italy, because the audiences are the most passionate and when she performs well, it is there that she receives the greatest applause.