Q & A: Ah Young Hong and Michael Hersch Discuss Creative Synergy, Artistic Challenges, and the Beauty of CollaborationBy Chris Ruel
Ah Young Hong, is a soprano who has collaborated with composer Michael Hersch on numerous pieces. She is a globally recognized concert and chamber soloist, and has collaborated with top-notch artists like violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and renowned orchestras such as the BBC Symphony. In the world of opera, she made waves with her New York premiere of Michael Hersch’s “On the Threshold of Winter.” Over the years, she’s tackled a range of roles, from classics by Monteverdi and Verdi to contemporary pieces. As a dedicated recording artist, Ms. Hong has been part of several albums, most notably her 2018 solo debut. Outside her performing career, she imparts her expertise to students as an Associate Professor at the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University.
Michael Hersch’s notable compositions have graced stages worldwide. These include his Violin Concerto, showcased at the Lucerne Festival and Avanti Festival, and his monodrama, “On the Threshold of Winter,” performed in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. The Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals featured his touching elegy, “I hope we get a chance to visit soon.” At the 2019 Wien Modern Festival, he premiered a labor of love, “sew me into a shroud of leaves,” which took him 15 years to craft. His opera “Poppaea” debuted in 2021, with the recording to be released Jan. 24, 2024.
Besides his composing prowess, Hersch is also a distinguished pianist. He has performed globally, gracing venues from the Warhol Museum to Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.
On October 29, 2023, New York City will host the North American premiere of “One step to the next, worlds ending.” This time, soprano Hong will join forces with the Talea Ensemble, and they’ll perform at the St. Paul + St. Andrew venue.
OperaWire connected with Hong and Hersch to discuss the growth of their working relationship.
OperaWire: How did you first connect with Michael Hersch?
Ah Young Hong: He was looking for a soprano for “On the Threshold of Winter,” but he hadn’t found one. They went through many auditions and reviewed many singers’ materials, yet Michael couldn’t find the soprano he was looking for.
OW: Michael, what were the circumstances that brought you to Ah Young?
Michael Hersch: After the death of a close friend in 2009, I began work on a monodrama, “On the Threshold of Winter,” ultimately completing it in 2012. While I wrote the piece without a specific performer in mind for the role, I had composed it for an internalized ideal voice which I hoped might materialize one day. The piece was for a voice that would be able to sing a two-act, two hour work without fatiguing, to sing long stretches of music with and without vibrato, to possess a voice that carried long distances without amplification, a voice that could navigate a vocal range across a number of voice types and, above all, to be able to communicate the character convincingly as an actor, to carry this role as the only focused presence for the totality of the piece. Through a series of coincidences and luck that I remain amazed by and grateful for still, I met Ah Young in late 2012 during an audition for the opera’s world premiere which was scheduled for the summer of 2014. I knew from the first moments of the audition that I was hearing something very special. It was the beginning of a collaboration which, in the decade since, has resulted in the overwhelming majority of the music I have written being for voice, hers in particular.
OW: What do you think Michael was looking for?
AYH: Even though I’m confident when I sing and believe in the music and words, thinking about myself and what he wants is harder and brings up my strengths and weaknesses. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but the audio samples I sent got him to hear me in person.
Since then, every year, it’s surprising when he writes. When I look at my premieres, I’ve done a lot. I remember when he told me about the second piece after “On the Threshold.” I asked, ‘Who’s singing it?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I think it’s for you.’ I try not to assume the pieces are for my voice.
OW: How would you characterize how you and Ah Young collaborate in music-making, Michael?
MH: I have been consistently amazed by Ah Young’s versatility and adaptability regarding the exploration of different and especially challenging expressive territories, whether in my work or that of other composers. She has an uncanny ability to learn new music and to utterly inhabit it. Over the course of our collaboration, I think we’ve challenged each other in terms of what is expressively possible for each of us, even what might be beyond reach at times. I have often asked her to take on what are increasingly demanding roles, both technically and emotionally. She gives everything of herself to the roles she undertakes, often at some physical and psychological cost. There have been times she has said no to particular roles. It is essential to make sure she, or any performer for that matter, is comfortable with what is being asked of them. I think after ten years there is a great deal of trust between us; trust to know where each of us is prepared to go artistically in any given moment. Trust takes time to build and cannot be rushed. It is something that must always present, ongoing, strengthening.
OW: Can you tell me how you collaborate?
AYH: I trust his and many composers’ instincts on what to write. I avoid directing them because their language and creativity are so personal and unique. I don’t want to obstruct that process. Everything has felt like a perfect fit since the first piece I performed for him. While there have been moments when I’ve suggested minor adjustments, like altering pitch slightly, I stay out of the way.
OW: How would you describe his musical language?
AYH: The music has extremes in range, and the tonality has gotten more ambiguous, with many crunchy cluster chords. It can be incredibly gestural at times, yet also incredibly accurate. While the music is dense and intense, I leave it to others – musicologists, theory experts, and composers – to describe what they hear. For me, it’s more of an emotional journey. I remember deciding to audition for “On the Threshold of Winter” and spending until 4:00 in the morning listening to all I could find of his work because it completely rocked my world with its emotional impact.
When I listen to his Symphony N0. 3, I hear the earth tearing apart, destruction, and life trying to find its way after that destruction. That’s what I hear. And if I try to understand my own emotions and fears, it’s a similarly introspective journey. It reveals a brutal honesty and emotions we don’t face daily. This music isn’t for everyone and not for me every day, either, since I enjoy being entertained by goofy, mundane things. But this music has helped me focus on my inner thoughts and fostered more empathy and compassion for the world.
OW: Michael, how would you describe your musical style’s unique elements, evolution, and language?
MH: In many respects, the music that I have written for Ah Young over this past decade feels much closer to what it is I hope to communicate than my earlier pieces, and the almost exclusive focus on the theater is a direct consequence of our collaboration. I think there has been a kind of distillation of expressive elements which she has allowed to come into focus for me. There is no doubt that my own exploration of particular subjects results in large measure from my experiences of working with Ah Young, and her fearlessness to explore even the most difficult subject matter.
OW: Ah Young, moving on to your approach: how do you begin your process? What steps do you take when he gives you new music?
AYH: “On the Threshold” was my first engagement with something very contemporary and difficult in the repertoire. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize we could be this realistic.’ We talk about verismo, and yes, it’s realistic, but this addresses topics we don’t typically discuss, like cancer.
So it’s weird. It’s a taboo conversation. No one really wants to talk about somebody who’s terminally ill. For me, having to go through it and show people was difficult, especially since I haven’t really had any family members, anyone very close, go through cancer. So, doing that research and trying to think about the thoughts and emotions one would go through was really eye-opening and an incredible learning experience. It made me feel a bit sad that I hadn’t thought about it that intensely until I received the role.
For “Poppea,” the most recent opera we did, it was interesting because while we’re very familiar with Monteverdi and the bad guys winning and being crowned, living happily ever after… I knew that wasn’t the truth. So, Michael was interested in the truth of Nero and Poppea’s journey. That was really satisfying. It allowed us to share with the audience what happened to Poppea and how Nero was towards the end.
Even though I have no plans of overthrowing an empress, I related to her striving to keep things together governmentally and with her husband, which makes sense. Everyone goes through that. While the violence she and others endured because of Nero was hard to channel and revisit, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to say something on stage because I am generally not very outspoken and don’t do interviews or blogs saying, ‘This is what I went through, and I want everyone to understand with you.’ I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of person.
I’m actually really quiet. I’m very enthusiastic when it comes to other people, my students. But as far as I am concerned, I’m quite quiet. So this was a wonderful opportunity to bring very difficult material that I’ve experienced and put it on stage. That’s opera.
OW: Which of Michael’s pieces speaks to you most?
AYH: “The Script of Storms,” recorded and performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is particularly special, and I’m super proud of it. Every piece is like our babies; I love them all, but this one is special because I knew the poet, Fawzi Karim, and was aware of his struggles. He and I shared a respectful and warm friendship.
Michael and I wished for this piece to premiere while Fawzi was alive. He knew it existed, but sadly, he passed away before we could perform it. I often think about Fawzi Karim and the importance to him of having his words sung.
He [Fawzi] really wanted me to sing them. He’d say, ‘Just sing some of my texts.’ And I’d say, ‘I can’t. Don’t know how; let’s just wait for Michael.’ So, this piece means a lot to me because now I know the composer and, of course, Fawzi. The late Fawzi Karim was also a dear friend.
OW: How has your relationship with Michael changed over the years?
AYH: Beginning to work with a living composer, I frequently asked, ‘I feel this… I think that… Here is an audio sample; is this okay?’ I’d never worked with a composer before, so a nervousness persisted, perhaps from knowing they would hear my interpretation. With composers like Brahms, it’s too late for him to critique if I perform it less than perfect. But I saw a chance to do it right with a living composer.
I’m unsure if my questions arose from insecurity or just deep care for the music and what he’s written—it’s an extension of him and his existence, and I earnestly wanted to respect that. So, I asked a lot of questions, and he was incredibly helpful. Despite learning that the composer attending the first rehearsal, I wanted him there at every rehearsal, which was not the norm.
Now, there’s less of that. A sentimental part of me thinks, ‘Oh, I liked those days when I questioned everything.’ But I don’t anymore, or at least not to the same extent. Confidence is wonderful, but I still reach out. I send him pictures of the score, asking, ‘Can I do this? Is this too quiet?’ and provide audio samples each time I work on something.
OW: Same question to you, Michael. How has your relationship evolved?
MH: I’ve just completed a new opera. It’s another large-scale project which will have taken a period of years to complete from its conception, composition, and through its premiere next year. There have been a number of these kinds of projects since Ah Young and I began working together ten years ago, projects that often originate simply from a starting point of mutual expressive interest. It is, I think, another example of a reciprocal respect for how we wish to explore the art form together. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t at some point think about the staggering good fortune I have had with this artist in my life as both inspiration and colleague.
OW: Ah Young, what do you find most challenging about Michael’s music, and what advice might you give a young singer as they approach similar types of music?
AYH: I think the thing I find the most difficult is that I don’t have perfect pitch, so I have to get my pitches somehow, somewhere. And sometimes, it’s muscle memory. Sometimes, you can hear that cluster of sounds, and I can pull something out. And sometimes, but really bless him, he gives a certain instrument a note I can sing off of, but that’s probably the most challenging. I really need to know the score, not just my vocal line but everything else. There is no quality that I can latch onto. So it makes you a really honest musician to work hard.
And also there is stamina, emotional stamina, as well as physical stamina. Let’s see, “Threshold” is two hours, “Poppea” is two hours, and I don’t think I even left the stage for one minute or something.
I had to rework my technique. I’m not saying my technique is so perfect now that I can sing anything. It’s more like it’s an efficiency and knowing what your strengths are and your weaknesses are. I need to maneuver through large intervals and difficult, sustained high notes very efficiently and healthily. And I didn’t do it alone. I had an incredible coach help me through it. I also had Michael help me through it. He has an incredible ear and can tell when something sounds like it’s maybe not the easiest vocal production. And he’ll find ways to, ‘Shall I make this low or do this?’ He’s incredibly accommodating and flexible.
Technically, it’s been learning how to ride a bike again. It feels like that for every piece that I’ve premiered. But then I get to a really happy, healthy place, and I go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I know this.’ But it is just trying to find simple, honest, efficient vocal production. I know that sounds so weird because nothing about the vocal production of his pieces seems so simple and efficient. I feel like I sing much better because of how difficult this is.