An Interview with Celebrated Tenor SeokJong Baek

Two richly dressed opera performers stand on a stage with chorus members behind them
SeokJong Baek in ‘Turandot’ at the Metropolitan Opera. Karen Almond/ Met Opera

By chance in 2019, SeokJong Baek met internationally acclaimed tenor Yonghoon Lee. Baek, who comes from a South Korean family with a great love for classical music, had recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music where he had trained as an operatic baritone, but when Lee heard him sing, he told Baek there was something in his voice that made him think he could sing the upper register. He had, Lee said, “great potential.”

After that encounter, Baek was accepted as a baritone into a young artists program at The San Francisco Opera but was given the opportunity to sing as a tenor in the final student concert. And it awakened something in him.

He was still in San Francisco looking for someone to help him change his voice when the pandemic hit, but with social distancing, there wasn’t a teacher to be found. Still determined, Baek secured a practice room at the South Korean United Methodist Church. “I spent every day there,” Baek told Observer. “I practiced without even a day’s skipping, testing and observing my voice and how it would function on my body.”

It’s not a story of success, he cautioned, but rather one about failure. Alone in an empty church with Covid shutting down the world, things looked bleak for musicians everywhere. “It was a very tough and cruel time because I had no idea what I was doing at first,” he said. “I failed and I tried harder, and I failed again and tried different techniques.”

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Months went by before he saw any results, but he finally figured out how to retrain his voice, learning to approach the passaggio in new ways and achieve that elusive high C. Determination kept him going, and he practiced for a year and a half before he could sing some of the more difficult tenor arias without strain.

Looking back, Baek feels it was the very dead space of the pandemic that allowed him to focus like this: “Work had stopped during and I felt this is the only thing that I need to do, and this is the only way that I can find something for my future.”

Baek spoke to Observer shortly after starring as Calaf in the opening night of Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera. Turandot ends relatively happily, with Calaf’s triumphant marriage and, in this particular production, his literal coronation. The 1987 Franco Zeffirelli Turandot, one of the Met’s beloved old war horses, is a gloriously decadent monstrosity of gilded pagodas, severed heads and courtly fan dances. Aesthetically, it borrows equally from traditional Chinese and Japanese painting, commedia dell’arte, Italian fascism, Hollywood musicals and seventies disco. Between the dancers, the singers and the acrobats, directing this production must be akin to marshaling an army.

Today, SeokJong Baek is more than up to the challenges of Calaf. His hard-won upper range is supported by a splendid lower core that developed during his fifteen years of training as a baritone. A rich voice with a soaring volume, he brings the quality of his lower register into the high notes. Combined with the passion of his performance, you couldn’t ask for a more winning Calaf.

It’s worth pointing out that Calaf is not just a tenor role, it is the tenor role—the performer must sing the soaring, show-off aria “Nessun dorma.” In the Zeffirelli production, the aria is sung on a stage awash in romantic moonlight. It is the Hamlet’s soliloquy of arias, a rite of passage for lyric tenors. Baek, fortunately, has the acting skills to match his impressive vocal range. He plants his flag on that stage and announces his worthiness with a passion that surely harkens back to those long, bleak hours of solitary pandemic practice.

“I think the character of Calaf is just in my blood,” Baek mused. In Turandot, Calaf must win the hand of the vengeful Princess Turandot by answering her three riddles. Failure means execution. Calaf successfully answers the riddles, but Turandot is not defeated and is still out for vengeance. Calaf says that if she can guess his name before morning he will go willingly to his execution. Turandot declares that none shall sleep in Peking because if the prince’s name is not discovered by morning, it will mean death for all. The emperor’s courtiers offer Calaf land and wealth to give up on Turandot and leave Peking. But he refuses. Only when his father’s slave girl is tortured and then commits suicide to protect him does he finally relent. He tells the princess his name. Turandot, transformed by the events of the drama, accepts his love.

A man in a fanciful costume gestures while singing on a stange
Baek’s impressive vocal range was hard-won. Karen Almond/ Met Opera

Zeffirelli’s Calaf is given a coronation in gilded robes in the splendors of the sun emperor’s palace. Like Calaf, Baek’s story—his “story of failure”—concludes spectacularly. Rarely in the arts does hard work lead inexorably to career success, but with a packed 2024 season at the Met, London’s Royal Opera House and more, Baek’s breakthrough career as a leading tenor is off to a jaw-droppingly good start.

“I’m just an ordinary man; sometimes I’m shy, and in general I’m very introverted,” Baek said.  But like Calaf, once presented with a challenge, he can’t let it go. His story of gritting his teeth and returning over and over to the practice room to retrain his voice has a happy ending, making it a rare tale in an industry where the pandemic, instead of advancing careers, forced artists to find other work. And training the voice to sing in higher registers is one of the hardest transitions a performer can make. Would that the industry supported young artists better and helped fund and otherwise support the long periods of training that would allow for such unusual leftward turns. If that was the case, voices as held and curated as Baek’s would be the norm and not be the exception to the rule.

Tenor SeokJong Baek Opens Up About His Tenor Transformation and the Pursuit of Success

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