Accomplished violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill is, in many ways, driven by his past, a legacy of both pain and incredible generosity.
by YOONJ KIM
Glance at Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s bio, and the picture becomes clear pretty quickly: The first violist in the history of Juilliard to receive the Artist Diploma. Five solo albums, plus a Grammy nomination for Best Soloist with Orchestra. Concerto performances with the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Seoul Philharmonic and Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Only the third violist to be added to the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Youngest faculty member at UCLA’s School of Music. Collaborations with composers from around the world.
Did we mention that he also leads a charitable children’s orchestra in South Korea, runs marathons and does commercial modeling?
O’Neill seems like your classic Korean American overachiever. And the musician—who has been featured in numerous South Korean TV specials and variety shows over the years—himself agrees.
“I think it’s a very normal thing,” he said over lunch at UCLA’s Faculty Center, before one of his classes. But the secret to his success is not just ambition and a pristine work ethic.
“People, like overachievers and perfectionists, are trying to prove to the world that they’re not bad,” said O’Neill, in a self-analysis of his own intense drive. “They’re trying to prove to themselves the same thing.”
To fully understand what he means, one must understand where he comes from.
Born to a mentally disabled mother, a Korean War orphan whose malnourishment led to permanent brain damage, O’Neill was raised by his white grandparents, his mother’s foster parents. Perry and Mildred O’Neill, who took in 36 foster children over their lives, provided him the care that his developmentally challenged mother could not and also gave him his last name. He never met his father, a figure shrouded in dark mystery throughout his childhood, as his grandmother told him stories about how he was a “monster” who had raped his mother. This cast a shadow on O’Neill’s early years that still remains with him to this day. It’s part of what makes him the force that he is now.
“I’m not that hard to dissect psychologically,” he said half-jokingly.
O’Neill grew up in a predominantly white town in Washington state, where he says he was incessantly bullied for his Asian features and having a handicapped mother. Though his biological ancestry is both Korean and Caucasian, he takes after his mother’s side appearance-wise, which fueled even more prejudice.
“I was called ‘gook’ and all these horrible names,” he recalled. “I mean, I never mentioned it when I was [interviewed] on [Korean] TV because it’s offensive, but I was tortured, tormented, growing up in Washington state. They treated me like a half-breed. And my mother’s handicapped, and they discriminated against me for that—and it’s wrong. It made me feel really bad.”
The tormenting was such that he believed the fault lay with himself. The problem, he thought, was with his appearance—specifically, his eyes.
“I had this wrinkle in my forehead that my management said I should get Botoxed out,” he said, pointing to his forehead. “But the reason I have that is because I would look in the mirror almost every day and try to make my eyes very big. Because I wanted big eyes not because it’s a Korean thing, but because I wanted to look like the other kids.”
Growing up in this kind of environment, O’Neill found comfort in music and started violin lessons at 5. By age 15, he made the switch over to the viola, which is larger than the violin and suited him better. His grandmother would take him to Seattle and Canada, trips that were several hours long, so that he could get lessons from some of the finest teachers. She kept this up even into Richard’s teen years, when she was in her 80s.
Perhaps the best description of O’Neill’s grandmother, the most directly instrumental person to his success, stems from his account of her childhood. “She came from Washington, a logging family with nine children,” he said. “And the girls worked just as hard as the boys. There was no sort of ‘You’re a girl, so you have it easy.’ Very sweat-of-your-brow sort of people.”
The same work ethic was passed on from the elder O’Neill to her grandson. After years of refining his musical skills, he left home for a boarding arts high school in North Carolina at the same age he made the switch from the violin to the viola. He remembered his dreams at 15, saying, “What really got me was that I really wanted to become a musician more than anything. Of course, the viola seemed the way to do it.”
His hard work paid off, and he would go on to attend the University of Southern California on a full scholarship. But while he was at college, O’Neill’s beloved grandmother died suddenly. The loss was devastating for Richard, whose grandmother had played such a central figure in his life and his musical education. In a 2008 lecture he gave in Korea, he said that her death marked a turning point in his life. “I had always been a hard worker, but I think that the realization that people die, and I too would die, and nothing in life is permanent, that really sunk in very quickly,” he said at the time. “So I started working even harder.”
This drive would help him get accepted to Juilliard and, later, earn the school’s Artist Diploma, as well as the many accomplishments and accolades that fill his resume.
If it hadn’t been for his grandmother’s resilience and loving care from the beginning, O’Neill would most likely not have become the successful musician he is today. He realizes this, and, that’s why, despite the personal torment he experienced from his peers and a painful family history, he is an expressively grateful and empathetic individual.
“You have to do your best to be kind and respectful, and sympathize with others,” he said. “Because, if my own life is like this, I can’t imagine what others’ are like. At least, I had loving grandparents who gave me an education,” he said. “What happens if I had abusive parents who beat me when I went home, didn’t help me through my schoolwork, and I ended up with nothing?”
O’Neill’s sensitivity to the plight of others has led him to devote much of his time to a personal project—a children’s orchestra in Seoul for kids of mixed race. A four-part documentary series about the project, “Hello?! Orchestra,” started airing on MBC on Sept. 27 of last year and concluded this past February.
“A lot of the kids I worked with come from abusive situations or single-parent homes in Korea,” O’Neill said. “A lot of them are discriminated against in elementary school.”
When asked if his own story was a reason for his involvement in the orchestra, he answered with an immediate and firm “yes.”
“I’m never one to say to a society, ‘Change, you’re bad,’ But I am one to say that I believe in certain things. I believe that people come into this world the way you are. A child has no control over the situation they’re born into,” he said, his statements strongly reminiscent of his personal experiences. “I had a lot of burden in my life about something that I actually had nothing to do with. And later in life, because I’ve had the luxury of therapy and friends and a healthier environment, I can look back and say it is what it is. But a lot of these kids are elementary school kids growing up in Korea—they are really treated like dregs. And that just breaks my heart.”
As he said, these similar childhood traumas of his were partially dealt with via therapy.
“Instead of trying to escape reality, I lived with it,” he revealed. “And it’s not the easiest process for sure. It hurts. It really hurts. I mean, you live with this pain all the time. It can be debilitating.” And, yet, O’Neill, at 34, is an example of someone who overcame his hardships. Today, he is a musician at the top of his game, as well as the owner of a rare million-dollar viola, made by Giovanni Tononi, of Bologna, circa 1699.
“I didn’t come from any money at all,” he said. “I had to put myself through education and, on top of that, I decided as a musician, it was important to buy an old Italian instrument, which was a million dollars. A lot of money. So from coming from nothing to buying a million-dollar instrument … I decided to go all [out] for the art.”
In the end, it may have been his artistic path that ultimately led him to make peace, at least to a degree, with a dark part of his past. Having long made up his mind about his biological father based on his grandmother’s account, he had never attempted to find his father. However, after witnessing a moving display of courage from one of the children in his orchestra, he changed his mind.
“One of my girls in my orchestra was abused by her dad,” he recalled. “He was a little crazy. And so she broke down—it was in front of the cameras. I thought if she was courageous enough to [speak publicly about that], I’ll finally do it, too. So I hired a Korean private investigator, and I found him.”
After a moment, he continued, “My dad died. I reconnected with his family in January. Still very, very recent.”
It turned out that his father, a white American from a Boeing family in Washington, was a bright boy who at 15 suffered a motorcycle accident that left him mentally disabled for the rest of his life. It was afterward that he met O’Neill’s mother while he was undergoing rehabilitation outside of Seattle.
“I think my mom really liked him, and he really liked her,” he said of his parents, who were in their early 20s when they met. “But you know, they were two handicapped kids. And my grandmother [O’Neill] found out during her second trimester, and she flipped out. She said it was rape and called the family and said, ‘Your son raped my daughter.’ And she couldn’t conceptualize that her daughter at that age would actually want that.”
His grandmother threatened to press charges against his father, should he or his family ever try contacting him or his mother. So O’Neill spent the majority of his life believing his grandmother’s version of events.
“The thing that I feel most bad about was that he suffered,” O’Neill said, of his father. After being forbidden from seeing his son or son’s mother again, his father’s mental condition deteriorated, and he ended up being institutionalized in eastern Washington, where he eventually died in 2004. “That really affected me for a few months,” said O’Neill.
This revelation of his family history came in December. He received the call from the investigator during a rehearsal at the Lincoln Center. Soon after he made contact with his aunt (his father’s sister), she came to his concert in January.
“The first thing she said was—she grabbed my hands and said, ‘You have his hands,’” recounted O’Neill, who has very long, slender fingers that appear specially sculpted to play a string instrument. The father that he had viewed as a monster his whole life was the one who had passed on one of O’Neill’s greatest musical advantages.
And, today, O’Neill, who is constantly on the move with bicoastal residences in Los Angeles and New York, passes on his passion for music to others. A few days after this interview, he traveled to South Korea, where in addition to running the children’s orchestra, he also leads Ensemble DITTO, a chamber group made up of musicians of various ages to promote classical music. He is a well-known figure in Korea, where he and his mother, Colleen O’Neill, were also the subject of a documentary that tried to find her biological parents, though unsuccessfully. (His mother currently lives in Astoria, Ore., with her partner.)
“What I’m consciously aware of is that music is a tradition that you have to pass down,” the musician said. And the way in which he transmits this tradition is not lost on the young people he mentors. “He’s very caring,” said Din Sung, one of O’Neill’s viola students at UCLA. “Not only does he care about how well his students play, he also cares about every aspect of his students, whether it be issues with class scheduling, work loads, personal problems.”
The description seems to embody the ethos of O’Neill. Through music, he’s able to express himself in more open and profound ways. His life story, his difficulties, his empathy, his gratitude—they are all on display when he performs.
“It’s hard for me to express things because I have so many things inside,” he said. “But I think, when I really focus and I play, people can see. They can see.”
This article was published in the July 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).