The road to the top is long and hard
Mirjam Helin winners Eglise Gutierrez and Woo-Kyung Kim had to seek tutoring abroad
By Mari Koppinen
"Hard work pays off in the end" is a well-worn phrase, but it is one that leaps to mind as one listens to the Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez and the South Korean tenor Woo-Kyung Kim, the freshly-baked winners of the 5th Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, when they talk about their lives and their approach towards a singing career.
In addition to this latest achievement, both singers have already enjoyed successes in several other international contests as well. But success hasn't come easily to either of them.
"When I set off for Germany to study singing, I only knew two sentences in German: 'I am going to Munich' and 'I am hungry'", reminisces Kim, who turns 27 next month.
However, Kim was adamant he had to learn German, for he imagined it was his ticket to foreign countries. He, therefore, used every opportunity to speak German with passers-by, even when he was totally unversed in the language.
"People thought I was certifiably mad but, sure enough, in the end I did learn the language. But I have to admit it was a struggle", Kim explains.
The 29-year-old Eglise Gutierrez, in turn, did not speak a word of English when she first arrived in Philadelphia to study at the Academy of Vocal Arts.
Her knowledge of Russian, which she had acquired in her childhood when Cuba still had strong ties to the Soviet Union and other Socialist bloc states, was of little help in the USA.
Both Kim and Gutierrez ended up seeking education overseas mainly because in their home countries the possibilities to study classical singing were limited, and also because there was no real opera tradition.
"I never heard opera in Havana. In fact, I hated it", reports Gutierrez, who studied classical guitar in Cuba.
But one day guitar was changed to singing. Later, seven years ago, Gutierrez elected to travel to the United States to study singing there. Her life changed dramatically.
"Life in Cuba was so poor. As a singer there, I would have never had a chance to travel abroad. Had I not moved to the United States, I would have never had a chance to come to Finland, either", Gutierrez notes.
Kim explains how the South Koreans enjoy listening to classical music, but how opera productions are seldom on offer. There is one opera house in the country, but even there productions are seldom staged.
“Most young musicians study in Europe, and return then to South Korea. But there they will encounter huge problems as there is no work", Kim laments.
Woo-Kyung Kim was introduced to classical music at an early age by his father, who was an Evangelical Lutheran pastor. Even as a child Kim heard a lot of classical music, especially church music.
"I started playing the piano, which was not common at all in South Korea. Later on I progressed to the violin, and eventually to singing, when I was around 16 or 17.”
Beginning the singing training was not a matter of course to Kim, who was anything but convinced about his singing abilities. His school music teacher, however, saw the youngster's potential: he stated without hesitation that Kim would become a singer.
And that he did. At the age of 22 Kim moved to Germany and started labouring in the field he had come to understand was his calling.
Kim's manager Pekka Pohjola confirms that Kim is a true perfectionist. "He practices eight hours a day, every day, and immerses himself completely in concentrating on each performance."
Kim adds that in a way he practices 24 hours a day: to him all life's events are a kind of rehearsal programme for his profession.
"I cannot sing about a kiss, unless I have experienced it", Kim says and adds: "I don't want to settle for being a mere opera singer - I want to be an artist. Anyone can scream, but who can sing artistically?" Kim asks.
Hard work has brought in its train a measure of fame, but also a job. For one year now, Kim has been employed by the Semper Opera in Dresden.
Eglise Gutierrez's hard toil has also started to bear fruit.
Within the past couple of years, the singer, who graduated from her Philadelphia seat of learning last spring, has already won the International Montserrat Caballé Opera Competition, the Marian Anderson Opera Competition - and now also the Mirjam Helin Singing Competition.
Does she still have more victories up her sleeve?
"Competing is important, but I think this is enough", Gutierrez laughs.
In the future, she hopes to give concerts as well as take part in opera productions.
“I love performing and being on stage. That is what I want to do.”
The Cuban singer is used to startling audiences, and that is exactly what she did in the Mirjam Helin event as well.
The next step would be to dig out and dust off the long-forgotten guitar. "At the end of a concert it would be fantastic to perform an encore on a guitar. It would be something completely different!"
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.8.2004
More on this subject:
Final results of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition
Previously in HS International Edition:
Gutierrez and Kim take top honours at Mirjam Helin Competition (12.8.2004)
The Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition
MARI KOPPINEN / Helsingin Sanomat