Chanhee Cho
© Eduardus Lee
To hear ChanHee Cho sing Rossini’s “La calunnia è un venticello” even on YouTube, is to listen to an accomplished performer well on his way to recognition as an artist, someone who would be at home on the world’s most prestigious opera stages. His bass is sonorous, at ease at the highest registers, at full power throughout the long crescendo and with hints of much more in reserve – in all, a superb performance by a singer who doesn’t seem to have much more to learn. All the more surprising, then, is the fact that this young South Korean singer is at the start of his career, one of the six promising vocalists honing their craft at the Dutch National Opera Studio

This two-year traineeship, that aims to prepare young talents for an international opera career with a combination of workshops and professional experiences, is the chance of a lifetime for aspiring singers. Even though already into his third month with the Studio, Cho still seems to be trying to wrap his head around the privilege of being one of the participants. “I was so happy, like a child,” he told me during our Zoom conversation, still shaking his head in disbelief when asked about his reaction upon being chosen. 

This response is even more understandable considering that it initially seemed to be an opportunity offered, then lost. He was first asked to join by Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua, the Studio’s artistic leader, four years ago, Cho told me. “I had just won the first prize at the Neue Stimmen Competition when Rosemary wrote me an email, telling me I was invited to audition. I had to tell her: I am sorry, I have to join the army!” Two years passed before his mandatory service was done, and thinking his chance with the Dutch lost, he busied himself with further voice training while applying to opera studios elsewhere. “Yet, four years later, long after I had finished military service, Rosemary again invited me. I was extremely surprised!” 

Cho got his first real taste not only of competing against other aspiring performers but also of singing before an audience in 2017, at the Musical Olympus International Festival of St. Petersburg. The breakthrough came later in the same year, with triumphs in two international competitions. In particular, it was his performance at the Neue Stimmen competition in Gütersloh, Germany, that caught Joshua’s ear. Of the 1,430 singers from 76 nations who applied, Cho prevailed round after round to win top honors for male vocalists with his masterful rendition of “La calunnia,” Bartolo’s signature aria in Rossini’s Il barbiere di SivigliaHe had already triumphed the year before at the Gian Battista Viotti International Music Competition – the youngest of all the competitors at only 23. In Germany, 12 months later, Cho was again the youngest, and facing 39 rivals, many with more years of singing behind them. But, though he may have had the butterflies, his performance was that of a seasoned pro, and the fact that he had some impromptu encouragement in the background may have calmed any of the jitters.

“Even now,” he recalled, “when I rewatch the video of the final round it seems that the orchestra member behind me liked my aria and sang along with it. And he was not the only one who encouraged me. When I sang the high notes, I saw people in the audience nodding their heads, like they liked my singing,” Cho told me with a shy smile – all the more endearing because it is so at odds with the strong stage presence he displayed in his winning performance. “As for the orchestra musician, I don’t know him personally. But if I will ever meet him again, I want to tell him Dankeschön.“

To hear him tell it, it was not the first time that the members of the Duisburg Philharmonic Orchestra motivated him – although it took him a while to register that they were doing so. “I heard them saying 'super, super!' as I left the stage after my first and second rounds.” What he didn’t immediately realize, however, was that the German pronunciation of the word is similar to the Italian zuppa. “I thought they were saying 'soup' in Italian. I was appreciative of their smiles but at the same time a bit confused, to say the least,” he laughed.

Chanhee Cho
© Joep Hijwegen
That wouldn’t happen to him now, however. German language classes are part of the rota of the working day at the studio, that begins at 10AM and ends at 6PM, along with French language, workshops and masterclasses. Between one coaching session in the morning and one in the afternoon, Cho practices techniques he has just been taught and learns new repertory. He laughed when I asked him what he does with the rest of his time in between. “I sing. All the time. The whole time,” he said. And when asked if he ever gets tired of it, he shook his head: “The adrenalin keeps me going.” 

Singing for a living was something that he wanted to do from his early childhood. He remembers being fascinated by the voice of his mother, Soo Jin Lee, who studied opera singing in Milan, and thinking “Ah! I have to be a singer, an opera singer!” He began taking lessons at 15, and his mother was indeed his first teacher. Asked what else he could think of doing for a livelihood if he wasn't a singer, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never thought of doing anything else!”

Joshua was surprised at how well he had managed to maintain his voice during his time in the military but, as Cho explained to me, it wasn’t an easy feat. There is no home leave in the South Korean military, one of the strictest in the world, so it was left to his mother to come to him for lessons on Sundays, when he was allowed to have visitors. But with no real place to practice, they had to improvise: vocal training had to happen in his mother's car. Certainly that dedication and resilience paid off in the long term.

Cho's voice is lyric-bass right now, “more Mephistopheles than Hunding,” as he put it, and the perfect Fach for his splendid buffo rendition of the Bartolo aria. But he clearly has hopes it will deepen, describing the moment when he will know that he is where he wants to be when he will be able to sing the role of Phillippe II in Verdi’s Don Carlos. That role calls for a heavy bass, but Cho is sanguine. “I’ll get there,” he said. “Voices tend to deepen as their owners get older!”

Cho is now looking forward to his first roles with the Dutch National Opera as the first soldier in Salome in February, followed by the Hermit in Der Freischütz in June. He will also hone his craft at lunch concerts and foyer evenings, and later in his second year, he will perform in the annual Opera Studio production. And once his two-year stint at the Opera Studio will come to conclusion, he hopes for a contract with one of the opera houses in Germany, as a soloist. “Germany is the home to many agencies as well, so I hope to get noticed by one of them,” he told me.

His immediate goal while at the Opera studio, however, is to become a complete performer, with mastery not only of a perfect singing technique, but also of the expressivity and acting skills that belong to an all-round opera talent. And when I asked what he would consider his most important goal as a singer, Cho again smiled his shy smile: “I want to deliver joy and happiness to everyone who listens to my songs.”

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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