Stony Brook University and one of its most talented students made history on the weekend of April 21-22 as Ju Hyeon Han became the first blind singer to be cast in a leading role in an American conservatory or university opera production.
The production was Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, a challenging work undertaken by Stony Brook Opera and staged at the Staller Center Main Stage on April 22 and 23. Ju Hyeon, who is in her fourth year of a Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance degree, took on the major role of Female Chorus, which “speaks” throughout the opera for the female characters.
For Ju Hyeon, who lost her sight as a baby, it represented the fulfillment of a life’s dream.
“I feel so honored that Stony Brook gave me this amazing opportunity,” said Ju Hyeon. “So many people told me that it would never happen, that opera would be impossible for me and I shouldn’t even try. However, the SBU voice faculty are very open-minded and they wholeheartedly embrace the belief that a university is an educational institution so that I should get the same education and opportunities that my sighted colleagues are getting.”
As expected, there were numerous challenges for Ju Hyeon, such as being unable to get visual cues from conductor Tim Long. Ju Hyeon solved this problem by putting in extra work to learn the musical score so thoroughly so that if something went awry she would be able to fix it on the fly.
Then there was the challenge of playing a part that might not feel true to character. Director Ted Altschuler decided to use Ju Hyeon’s blindness as part of her character, attributing her lack of sight to a war injury.
“I haven’t had to pretend to be something I’m not and this permitted me to really get inside of the character of the female chorus, draw from my own life experiences, from the libretto and the music, and make the character my own,” she said.
Ju Hyeon also had to be careful moving about the stage. “Ted always had me close to something physical I could touch so I knew where I was at all times and never felt unsafe,” she said.
The cast also had her back. “Because my area was close to the orchestra pit, during our first rehearsal someone would call out and warn me it they thought I was getting too close to it,” she said.
Ju Hyeon’s teacher, Randall Scarlata, helped the classically trained singer also overcome any vocal challenges that arose during rehearsal.
This wasn’t Ju Hyeon’s first Stony Brook concert by a long shot but it was her first fully staged opera role. The singer with the two-and-a-half-octave range who also plays piano, flute and violin, has performed with the Baroque Ensemble, with the Stony Brook University Orchestra and with the Stony Brook Chorale.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a burning desire to sing and make music my life,” Ju Hyeon said. For inspiration she looked to Maria Callas, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Renee Fleming.
“I have loved working with Ju Hyeon and the experience is different than some might think,” said Long. “She has perfect pitch and a very quick memory and is quite independent. Because she cannot see, she often learns scores more completely than sighted singers. She’s acutely aware of orchestrations and beats. You might think that there would be an issue but there is none. I adore her and am extremely proud of her.”
Perry Goldstein, chair of the Department of Music, concurs. “Since Ju Hyeon came to Stony Brook, she has overcome every obstacle in the way of getting the most out of her education. She is carrying a perfect grade point average and she has never shied away from a challenge. She approaches everything with great humor and a “can-do” attitude that is an inspiration.”
After she finishes her doctoral studies Ju Hyeon plans to audition for opera companies, apply for teaching jobs at both the college level and with younger students who have special needs or figure out a way to launch a career as a concert singer.
“I am particularly interested in taking classical vocal music to the community, hospitals, school, nursing homes and group homes for adults with disabilities and would love to pair a musical program with inspirational speaking. I’ve had a life full of adventures and l would love to share my life story to show that life is good even with a disability and blindness is nothing to fear.”
Aside from music, Ju Hyeon counts her white cat Emma and black Labrador guide dog Giada as her passions. “My animals help ground me and give me unconditional love and laughter every day,” she said. “I can’t tell you how good it is to come home to a purring cat or to have a dog to hug during breaks in rehearsals, particularly after highly emotional scenes. Of course, Giada is my eyes, my hero and my constant companion. I commute from Brooklyn to Stony Brook and Giada has saved my life several times, putting herself between me and a car that is turning without looking and keeping me away from the edge of train platforms.”
Lacking sight does not prevent Ju Hyeon from seeing the big picture — breaking ground for others. “I really hope other educational institutions and professional opera companies will see this opera and give the same opportunities to other blind singers out there, because with creative and open-minded directors and conductors, inclusion definitely works.”
— Glenn Jochum