ENSCONCED in a rose leather chair in her studio apartment here, Taewon Yi Kim, a classically trained coloratura mezzo-soprano, looks decidedly undivalike. Styling her hair on this particular morning, she declares, is ”useless.” Casually dressed in somber colors, except for her fuchsia-and-electric-green slippers, the 32-year-old would easily blend in with the young Asian-Americans who frequent the clutch of Korean and Japanese establishments on Main Street.
Elaborately garbed and intricately coiffed as the late-19th-century Korean Queen Min in ”The Last Empress” at the New York State Theater, however, she commands a regal presence, crowned by a majestic voice — not to mention a hefty headpiece. Referring to her 40-odd-pound wig, she laughs, ”Thank goodness I’m an empress, so I don’t really have to bow.”
Back home in Fort Lee, a town most famous for the bridge that connects Bergen County to Broadway, the nonimperial Ms. Kim sighs, ”I’m so stressed out.” She herself is a bridge of sorts, spanning time zones and traditions, continents and cultures, life styles and musical styles.
She recently returned from performing ”The Last Empress” in her homeland, South Korea, where she won the Korean Musical Grand Prix for best actress, along with Wonjung Kim (no relation), who alternates with her in the role. While rehearsing for her stateside performances of ”Empress,” a musical drama, she was also preparing for an engagement in Mexico City. Last year, when she first played Queen Min at Lincoln Center, she was also appearing on Broadway, as Lady Thiang in ”The King and I,” occasionally performing both roles the same day.
On the personal front, she confides, ”I haven’t seen my husband in five and a half months.” Her husband, Justin Kim, is training as a golf pro in Orlando, Fla., and she has been traveling a lot. She is ever so grateful that her mother, Yon Pun Yi, voluntarily pitches in to do her laundry.
Ms. Kim’s bio in Stagebill perfunctorily lists her musical accomplishments: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Juilliard School, an Artist’s Diploma from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, various awards in classical competitions, solo performances and recitals. What it doesn’t mention, however, says far more about her determination.
As a teen-ager longing to fly a plane, she didn’t let the fact that she wasn’t yet a United States citizen stop her from applying to the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy and West Point. Switching her attention from G forces to G flats, she earned a scholarship to Juilliard after only five months of formal voice lessons and completed her studies there while commuting from Baltimore as a newlywed. She won a coveted scholarship to Peabody but had to finish her program living alone in Baltimore because her husband’s employer had transferred him to Atlanta. She auditioned for ”The King and I” having never heard the score or seen the show or movie.
And then there’s the nonoperatic, non theatrical way she characterizes herself: ‘I’m actually a gospel singer.”
When time permits, Ms. Kim conducts the Korean Presbyterian congregation’s choir at the Praise the Lord Mission Church in Ridgefield Park. The small congregation, whose minister is her father, Chong Hwa Yi, shares quarters with the Christ Lutheran Church on Mount Vernon Street. Christ Lutheran’s pastor, the Rev. Charles Austin, recalls that Ms. Kim’s performance of the hymn ”Jerusalem” during a joint Palm Sunday service two years ago ”was so good I thought we were going to lose the windows.”
Ms. Kim’s religious devotion is manifested in the plaques bearing Bible passages in Korean that decorate the walls of her modestly furnished apartment. Performing Korean church hymns and Christian songs is part of what she calls her ministry in the Korean Presbyterian Church, which is rooted in her upbringing. When she was 10, she and her younger brother and sister began performing in Korean churches and recital halls as the Yi Family Gospel Singers. For almost 18 years, she says, they performed not for profit, but for Christ.
Ms. Kim rhapsodizes about her brother’s voice and her sister’s talent as a pianist. Their parents, who ran an orphanage in the Korean countryside, ”loved singing, even though they’re not singers at all,” Ms. Kim says. Her mother’s mode of preparing for childbirth was to read the Bible and listen to church and classical music.
Born in 1966, the Chinese year of the horse, Ms. Kim was given the name Taewon, which means ”growing field,” by her grandfather. A horse, she explains, needs a vast field to thrive. Her grandfather, she adds, ”wanted me to work in a big field, all over the world, so I can get a big name.”
As poetic and prescient as that may sound, Ms. Kim notes that her childhood was scarred by separation. Upon reaching school age, she and her siblings were sent to live with their paternal grandparents in Seoul so they could take advantage of the educational opportunities there.
”I was always missing my parents,” she recalls. ”I always thought that I was not getting enough love. I cried every night.” Furthermore, she confesses: ”I was always jealous of my brother and sister. I always thought I was not good enough.” She was, she adds, the rebel of the family, the child who would talk back, disobey, test the limits of parental authority.
Immigration to the United States reunited the Yi siblings with their parents, who wanted their children to go to American universities but didn’t want to send them alone. The family originally settled in Ohio, where Mrs. Yi’s sister was living. About 18 months later, the family moved to Flushing, Queens.
Although 15-year-old Taewon was eager to come to the States and was surrounded by a large Asian community in Queens, she found the transition difficult. ”It was so embarrassing to speak to people,” she recalls. ”I always felt like they were teasing me.” Although she learned English within a year of her arrival, insecurity kept her from speaking it for another year and a half, she says.
Now, in ”The Last Empress” she finds herself singing entirely in Korean (with English supertitles). Although her command of her native language is flawless, she says: ”I’m having a hard time expressing myself when I’m singing Korean. The English language is very touching, much more than Korean.” Having left Korea as a teen-ager, she matured as an American, she explains, ”so when I sing in English, it touches me much deeper.”
Echoing the sentiments of many an immigrant, she proclaims: ”I’m more of an American than Korean in
the way I think and the way I act. I’m more open and I’m more liberal, but I’m still very Koreanized, too, conservative in a way.”
Queen Min, of humble origin, was expected to be the subservient consort to the future King Kojung. Once her husband came of age, however, she persuaded him to wrest control from his father and modernize the kingdom. Suspicious of Japanese overtures, she also encouraged him to open trade with Russia, Europe and the United States. The Japanese, who wanted a foothold on the Asian mainland, assassinated Queen Min. Some consider her a martyr and patriot, others a meddlesome woman who didn’t know her place.
”It’s not easy to be a working woman as a Korean, as opposed to being a good housewife,” Ms. Kim says. ”Even though my husband is very supportive, there’s always one side of him that wants me to be obedient like other wives, other housewives, which I don’t think I can be anymore. So when I play the Last Empress, those things come up.”
One of the most stirring moments of the lavish musical for both its star and her audience comes when Queen Min, desperate that she has not produced an heir, summons a shaman and feverishly engages in a forbidden fertility rite. ”I want to have a baby; I’ve had trouble,” Ms. Kim says. ”I’ve tried in-vitro fertilization five times. It didn’t work.” She admits, ”When I pray, it’s not Queen Min’s story; it’s my story.”
Once her New York run is over, Ms. Kim plans to continue as Queen Min in Los Angeles. Afterward, she hopes to audition for more Broadway shows. She also longs for a lead in a comic opera, like Rossini’s ”Barber of Seville” or ”Cinderella.” ”I’m a good comedian, I think,” she says. She and her siblings are also considering reviving their gospel act.
Ms. Kim realizes that fulfilling the destiny implicit in her name will require her to keep bridging the sometimes contradictory elements of her life. ”One thing that I know for sure,” she concludes. says. ”I always come back to the way I was raised.”
”The Last Empress,” in Korean with English supertitles, continues through next Sunday at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. Taewon Yi Kim plays Queen Min today, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Information and tickets: (212) 307-4100; in Korean, (212) 580-5458.