Baritone SeungHyeon Baek brings a powerful presence and a commanding voice to the title role in the SPO production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
Growing up in South Korea, he was exposed to opera at an early age – his mother attended a vocal conservatory in Italy – and fell in love with the stage while performing with his high school choir.
Baek’s opera career began at college, in Seoul; ironically, his very first role – out of many – was as the scheming Italian lawyer Gianni Schicchi. “After my marriage,” he says, “my parents and my wife’s parents all told me ‘you cannot make a living with music.’” They said the same thing to his wife, soprano Nayoung Ban.
Baek’s father was a soldier in the Korean Army; following Korean tradition, his wife had given up her dreams of a career in music to raise a family.
However, “Every morning at 3 a.m. I would go to the farm, and I listened to the music I last performed – which was Gianni Schicchi – in my car. And I was crying as I was driving. And so I thought, I want to try again. I will give it one more chance.” Nayoung agreed to do the same.
“You can try,” their families told them, “but it will not happen.”
The couple moved to the United States in 2010. SeungHyeon was 27 years old. Money was tight, and English was definitely a second language, but eventually both were accepted at the Manhattan School of Music, where they studied and learned, learned and studied, and each earned a Master’s there; at New York’s Mannes College of Music, they received Professional Studies degrees.
Both careers have taken off; happily, the families back home now fully approve.
Baek has performed with New York City Opera, Opera Ithica, MidAtlantic Opera and numerous others. In January, he sang the role of Lord Enrico Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor with Maryland Lyric Opera (his wife appeared in the production, too).
As a concert artist, Baek made his début at Carnegie Hall as a soloist in Fauré’s Requiem and Dvorak’s Te Deum. He’ll get to sing his dream role, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, next season with Opera San Jose.
For now, he’s pouring his heart, soul and booming baritone into the SPO production of his beloved Gianni Schicchi. “I love all the cast members and our Maestro Sforzini,” Baek says. “He helps our characterizing very much. And also our director, Josh Miller, who’s a genius.
“Maestro gives a lot of positive energy to us.”