Voice student aims to correct opera misconceptions

At first glance, he looks like a Chinese version of Clark Kent. He is tall, broad-shouldered, but when he removes his thick-rimmed glasses and takes the stage, he has transformed into someone completely different.Instead of superhuman strength, Oscar Seung wields a different kind of power – a power that bursts through his lungs and out his lips to create a baritone sound.

Once, he was Escamillo, a bullfighter who woos the beautiful gypsy “Carmen”. Another time, he was Gasparo, an abusive husband who teaches another man to control his wife, in “Rita”.

“No one really trains to be an opera singer,” he said. “You have to be born to do it.”

Seung, a junior vocal performance major, said he is willing to sacrifice everything to do what he loves – not for fame and fortune, but to get more people to fall in love with opera.

Seung, 21, said he already has to make many sacrifices because much of his time is invested in music. Besides attending rehearsals and performances, he must attend classes, translate music, memorize the music and help direct the music department at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

Carolyn Hoehle, a junior voice performance major, said she was particularly impressed with his work ethic while preparing for his first opera performance.

“I’ve seen him countless times step up to the plate and get things done,” Hoehle said.

Not being able to maintain relationships and have a family are the most difficult sacrifices Seung said he will have to make. He said opera requires him to work long hours and travel frequently. Opera is his first love, he said, so everything else comes second to fulfilling his dream of changing the way people view opera.

When young people think of opera, he said, they envision a fat lady belting out glass-shattering notes and don’t feel connected to characters or the story. He said he wants to break those misconceptions and “express the passion, joy and sheer emotion of opera.”

“I want people to be moved by it,” he said. “I want to bridge the gap between the younger and older generations.”

But before he thought of pursuing opera, Seung dealt with a different, offbeat gap with his parents.

Seung was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he lived for seven years until his family moved to Arlington to be closer to relatives. His family never exhibited any musical interest or talent, but Seung begged his parents for piano and violin lessons. His parents were shocked at his sudden interest in music but proud of his determination.

“I was one of those weird kids who didn’t really ask for toys,” Seung said. “I asked for a piano when I was about 11. While most kids were outside, I was inside practicing scales and techniques.”

Seung said at TCU, he realized he loved opera more than anything else and had talent when he played the lead role of Gasparo in “Rita” his freshman year.

Seung’s voice professors, Richard Estes and San-ky Kim, said Seung’s vibrant energy stood out when they met him three years ago.

“Everyone who knows Oscar and works with him is impressed by how fun he is to be around,” said Estes, director of opera studio. “That’s a really great quality.”

Kim, an assistant voice professor, said Seung infuses his personality into his performance so the audience can connect to the emotion of his characters.

Seung’s next role is the romantic poet Prunier, from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine.” When Seung sings, the music and words are Prunier’s, but the energy and personality behind the voice are all Seung. This energy is not just seen on stage, he lights up any room he enters, Hoehle said.

Seung moved about the room, singing and interacting with the other singers as he rehearsed a scene from “La Rondine.” He smiled at the other performers, teased them, rubbed their backs and wrapped his arms around them.

“Oscar is not conventional,” Kim said. “He’s got the energy to pursue (his dreams) as well.