Kathleen Kim Plays Madame Mao in the Opera ‘Nixon in China’


Story by Shinyung Oh

Photo by Taeuk Kang


The unexpected diva is a force to be reckoned with in opera houses and stages the world over.

“Diva” may be the last word that comes to mind when Kathleen Kim steps out with her face freshly scrubbed, hair now flowing loose and her 5-foot-1-inch frame adorned in a simple floral dress. Post-performance, she is almost unrecognizable. There is no hint of the angry, maniacal woman who had just stormed around the stage, waving a little red book. No more of the flaring nostrils, no sneers left on her face. Nothing in her demeanor betrays the fact that, for the past three hours, she had been seething, screaming and rant- ing, all in perfect pitch, on the stage as Madame Mao in the San Diego, California, production of John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China.

Instead, Kim slips into the post- opening night cast party and glides into a seat in the corner.

“Oh, no, people don’t recognize me,” she says softly, smiling impishly, almost as if she’s relieved.

Pass her on the street and she may well go unnoticed, taken for someone ordinary. But make no mistake: She is the last thing from ordinary.

Her singing has electrified opera houses and concert halls around the world. There has been no shortage of adjectives to extol her talent. The music establishment has described Kim as the “darling of the Met,” “a big hit” and “the jewel of the evening.” Her singing has been described as “fearsome brilliance,” “stratospheric,” “a marvel.”

The success of this Seoul native is no mere happenstance. At the age of 14, after seeing an advertisement, Kim signed herself up for an audition and appeared weekly as a part of the children’s chorus in a Sunday morning TV program. Then at age 17, she propelled herself to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Then followed admission to the Ryan Opera Center of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where a casting agent from the Metropolitan Opera made a beeline for her after watching her performance.

She has since graced the stage with the likes of José Carreras (yes, the José Carreras), Marcelo Alvarez and Myung Whun Chung. Just in the past 12 months alone, she has traveled to London, Seoul, Frankfurt, Rome, San Diego and Brussels in order to perform in Ariadne auf Naxos, Nixon in China, Un Ballo in Maschera and various concerts. Next on her agenda: L’enfant et les sortileÌ€ges in Geneva and Lausanne, concerts in Seoul, Ariadne auf Naxos in Palm Beach, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail in New York.

Ask her about this extraordinary life and she basically shrugs: “I guess this is the only thing I could do well. I never thought about doing anything else. In a way, I was lucky because I didn’t have to look for another path.”

But peek behind this nonchalance, and you’ll find unflinching focus and an unfettered devotion to the art.

Imagine going for weeks without talking. Or flying from Florida to Oslo without uttering a single word, not even to the steward or the guy checking your bags. This is exactly what Kim does in order to protect what is most valuable to her: her voice.

During a two-week stretch in Barcelona, Kim had to fill in for a second cast and perform back-to-back. To save her vocal cords, she says, “That time, I was mute. I didn’t talk at all. My lips were zipped.”

To her, these are minor necessities of the life she lives. “Singing is my life,” she explains. “My body is my instrument.”

It’s that simple.

And so it is that Kim quietly awaits her next performance, with her well of emotions ready to be unleashed, and her inner diva ready to conquer the stage once more.


This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.