Countertenor David DQ Lee: Winning Hearts and Minds at Cardiff Singer of the World

If we take the bi-annual Cardiff Singer of the World
competition as a litmus test, we can see that in the last 3 competitions, in 2003, 2005 and the
recently completed 2007 there has been a small but steady increase in the voice-type’s presence
on the finalist’s stage and an ever-better result. From Matthias Rexroth four years ago, to Sergejs
Jegers in 2005, to this year’s winner of his Concert competition on the 12th June, David DQ Lee,
a pattern of ever increasing success is emerging.

What the Korean-Canadian countertenor also demonstrated with verve and style last week was
his ability to present repertoire not traditionally associated with the voice-type and make it his
own. His mix of excellent technique, careful preparation with text, instinctive musicality and a
strong stage presence that could inhabit any role or poetic ideal required, was a winning
combination with both judges and the audience, and again demonstrated how far the music world
has come in its perception of countertenors. If David DQ Lee has in large part others to thank
for this growing acceptance of repertoire covering some 300 years, then he is the first to
acknowledge that debt. It was this — and other debts — which he was happy to discuss when I
caught up with him in Cardiff just days after his Concert win.

We met in a local café and he was obviously delighted with his success, even though he was not
one of the five to reach the Grand Final. His reaction was both charming and good humoured:
“It’s wonderful, I’m even getting recognised in the street here, which hasn’t happened to me
before and people are saying “well done” and “I loved your performance, good luck!” Although
of course I’m not difficult to spot here in Cardiff as I’m Korean, and have big streaked hair!” At
just twenty nine years old, he is at that crucial stage in any opera singer’s career when he is both
competing in competitions and learning fast by taking smaller roles in big houses, or bigger roles
in small houses. All to play for, and a time to consolidate everything learnt so far and to push
onto the next rung of the ladder. And David DQ Lee has a lot of musical experience in his past
already which is a good foundation for that future.

He had a difficult childhood, with parents divorced when he was six, followed by having to leave
even his mother and move at just thirteen from Korea to the west coast of Canada to live with a
guardian and with no maternal guidance at all. This might have been too much for many young
people, but it has been, he thinks, the very best thing that could have happened as it taught him
self-reliance, adaptability and the importance of getting on with people no matter where he found
himself. Just as important was his deep involvement in, and training by, the World Vision
Korean Children’s Choir as a boy soprano and later the British Columbia Boys Choir where he
led both the alto and bass sections, switching nonchalantly between octaves at a moment’s notice
using both his countertenor and bass-baritone. This very high level of choral and voice training
has been an essential element in his vocal development, he says, and also gave him an essential
sense of family with his choral colleagues as they travelled the world together. “Yes, they were
my family really and I made friends in the Choir, as a small boy, that I still have today….it was a
wonderful time in my life and I’m so grateful for everything that it gave me”.

What his time with the Korean and Canadian choirs didn’t give him however, was any great
knowledge of the great baroque operas of Handel or the role of the modern countertenor voice in
them, and David himself admits that it was that memorable film of 1994 “Farinelli il Castrato
that actually booted him into a whole new world of singing and his present burgeoning career on
the opera stage. It was only watching that film, when the famously-morphed voices of
countertenor and mezzo soprano launched into the wonderful aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from
Handel’s Rinaldo that Lee realised that the song, which he had learned to sing as a boy soprano
as just an isolated solo piece, actually had a history, a place, and a future in baroque opera.
Suddenly he knew what, and how, he could realise his ambitions as an artist and musician and it
was like being propelled out of a starting gate into a whole new race for artistic fulfilment. “I
was in tears listening to that aria….this was it! Of course I later found out about that voice in the
film being “manufactured”, but still I knew now where I was going and I went out and bought
every CD I could find of the countertenor voice and baroque opera arias — Derek Lee Ragin,
Drew Minter, James Bowman, Michael Chance…..David Daniels wasn’t recording then so I
discovered him later. Those first four countertenors became my role models and inspiration early
on and then one day I came across a copy of Opera News dedicated to baroque opera with a big
piece on the rise of Daniels as an operatic countertenor after his success in Tamerlano — so
everything began to fall into place in that last summer of High School for me and I decided to go
on to the Vancouver Academy of Music.

Of course, I was the first countertenor they’d had! I had to audition, so because I was unsure of
how they would view me I offered four songs — two alto baroque arias and two bass-baritone
ones. It really freaked them out and I’m sure they didn’t know what to do with me. Anyway,
after I was accepted, I suggested that they could assign anyone they wanted as my teacher, any
voice type, and I’d accept it. I was really lucky as I was assigned to a mezzo soprano, Phyllis
Mailing, who took me on and taught me just like any other singer with no concessions. That lady
became just so important to me. She was not just my teacher; she was my mentor, my friend, and
actually became my Canadian “mother”, a mother I’d longed for but not had from the age of 13
to when I was 18 and met her at the Academy. At that time she was the only person who could
tell me off, tell me what to do – you know, she would never let me sing in that old choral “white”
tone: she’d say “what are you doing? Use your vibrato, use your muscle, that’s how you get your
support”. She taught me like any other mezzo, and I know that if it wasn’t for her, I would not be
here now. She passed away in November 2004 and that was a terrible blow to me. I sang at her
funeral, and I shall never forget her. I am sure she watches over me now”.

Judging by reaction both there in Cardiff and around the globe, David DQ Lee’s natural talent
was well guided indeed, and I asked him about his plans and hopes for the future. Did he think
he would continue to offer a wide range of repertoire in recital as well as furthering his opera
career? “Absolutely, I love to sing the French art song repertoire in particular and I do study
many, many singers’ interpretations when I first approach a piece. I like to immerse myself in
the text, and gradually come to a way to make it my own. That’s how I like to work. I’m so
grateful to David Daniels for opening up this rep both on CD and in recital and showing it as
perfectly acceptable for a countertenor to sing — and why not? It’s just outdated preconceptions
of the voice type that hold people back. I’m a huge admirer of him for doing that, as well as of
his amazing artistry and beautiful voice. And the other person I really admire is Rene Jacobs as a
conductor: he’s so alive, so intense and makes beautiful music”. And more opera? “Oh yes, I
do hope so. I’m singing the title role of Radamisto in Hamburg again in the autumn, and I’ve
enjoyed doing Tolomeo in Cesare in Vancouver — I’d love to sing that role again soon, it’s such
fun and really suits me I think. I’ve a concert in Madrid this September — excerpts from
Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro Real and then I’m also going to sing the role of Prince
Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus at Santiago Opera in Chile. Yes, quite a trek, but they asked me to
do it after I won the Francisco Viñ International Singing Competition in Barcelona and it should
be fun down there — I can pretend to get drunk on vodka and lurch around the stage! Something
else which is important to me is to try to expand the knowledge of baroque repertoire in my home
country of Korea and I’m going to sing my first Glück’s Orfeo ed Euridice there soon.”

Finally, where would he like to see himself in five years time? “I like to set myself goals, with
deadlines, and I guess it would be to be singing at both Covent Garden and the Met — no point
not being ambitious….I think it’s possible.”

© Sue Loder 2007

image_description=David DQ Lee (Photo courtesy Atma Classique)
product_title=Above: David DQ Lee
Photo courtesy Atma Classique