The Surprising Triumph of Taehan Kim at Queen Elisabeth Competition: Portrait of the Young Baritone

The cliffhanger we missed. The very young Korean Taehan Kim surprisingly triumphs in Bozar. A portrait of the baritone of the moment and the voice of tomorrow.

It’s about ten past twelve when I realize that an inevitable night’s sleep has suddenly become ten times more difficult. “But we haven’t written a word about him yet!” a colleague gasps with me. It is of course fantastic that Taehan Kim, at 22 years old, the youngest of all finalists in this Queen Elisabeth Competition, was able to win the prize ribbon. But he had escaped our favorites radar. And so we dig into our memories and notes.

Iron ethos

In this anniversary edition of the KEW (10!) it is the fourth time that a baritone has triumphed. In addition, after Sumi Hwang in 2014 and Haeran Hong in 2011, Kim is the third South Korean to take home the challenge cup. A trend with future potential? ‘They are so well prepared, they have rehearsed everything a thousand times: no wonder that the basis with which they come on stage here approaches perfection,’ says my neighbor about the Korean delegation, who emphatically colored this final with three gentlemen.

We hadn’t seen it coming, this resounding victory for the young man with one big dream: to become a superstar. A rocker in the house, mom didn’t like that. In the classical spectrum, Kim leaned towards opera – the genre par excellence for entertaining both an audience and yourself. And it has to be said: he can pack a room. His Wagner lacks winter fat and Mahler has to mature in oak. But with a hyperintense aria like the one from Erich Korngolds The dead City Kim already knows how to get pretty deep under the skin.

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Queen for one night

Clean, trained, attractive: Kim and his generous baritone made a solid impression throughout the game; but it was not a course without obstacles, with a drop-off here and there, working points in diction, and a controlled performance style that did not fire the engine of our empathy. It then threatened to go into the red again with the bronze-awarded Julia Muzychenko-Greenhalgh. As the only candidate of the ultimate final evening, she managed to convince the jury and the public and was awarded the medal of honor.

Her tactics? Make everyone forget you’re in a competition. Muzychenko-Greenhalgh managed it with a volley of applause arias from Massenets Manon and an excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale opera Snegurochka, in which sensuality and vulnerability form a strange but beautiful pair. By then she had already made the Henry Le Boeuf Hall her own hall of fame – not a fan to be put off by stress-induced intonation troubles. Mercy shot was Always freeone of Verdi’s superhits The Traviata. The standing ovation almost wiped the closing cadence – a sky-high bouncer – off the map. And so the recital, which had begun with a tricky stumbling, concluded with a stage set ablaze. And, a few hours later, with a wildly applauded third place.

The battle that was a bubble

Fellow soprano Carole-Anne Roussel fished – in our opinion wrongly – behind the net. No place among the first six for the Canadian, who nevertheless delivered the most delicate interpretation of the evening. We noted that she does not put herself but the music in the foreground. And that her aria from Stravinsky’s The rake’s progress is a wonderfully cheerful conclusion to this competition: Mozart with a beard in his throat, the opera machine with a grain of sand in the mechanism.

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In the battle between the mezzos, neither Fleuranne Brockway (impressed by the swirling music arena?) nor an again fascinating Maria Warenberg managed to reach the top of the rankings. Honestly? We had it for the tall Dutch, who made it a sport to implement as many character changes as possible: from roaring fury to a shaky pout, and from cub to dominatrix, she writhes herself to a firm final cadence. Winner’s material, we thought.

Queen Mathilde congratulates winner

Photo: Belgian

Wrong again. It was vocalist Floriane Hasler, who raised the stakes on Thursday by linking her glowing voice to copious narrative ability, who was the fourth to receive her laureate’s bouquet. Colleague Juliette Mey, first lady of the fioriture, takes sixth place to Toulouse. This means that the second youngest finalist also lands within the select circle of ranked participants. Inho Jeong, the crowd-pleasing joker who served up his own version of musical theater with his deliberately bombastic bass, just preceded Mey in the final ranking and thanked the audience for his fifth place with a hug from a distance.


And then there was that moment that no one expected to come. Least of all Jasmin White herself. The second prize winner seemed as surprised as anyone else who saw her dive from top favorite to the ‘killed by stress’ list after the final round. However, in her sensational start to the competition, a forgiving jury found enough credentials for a total rehabilitation, close to King Kim.

We now know who won this very exciting competition. But what won, we will sleep on that for a while. Generosity, beauty and hope, according to jury chairman Bernard Foccroulle, are much needed today more than ever; and so it might be the glorious promise of the very young Kim that turned the score in his favour. He himself could not say a word about the first laureate seat: superstar status in his pocket, now still working on that rockers cool.

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2023-06-04 04:44:57
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