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Finding the Right Voice

Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim ’11 breaks tradition and boundaries.

Justin Kim Hero
Image: Victor Santiago

By Martin Wilson
Fall 2021
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Kangmin Justin Kim ’11, ’11 CERT grew up singing gospel music — with a twist. “Whenever I heard songs sung by women, I would always sing in their exact register,” he says. At the time, Kim thought his ability to sing high was “just a party trick" — until he realized it could be the key to opera stardom.

A natural tenor/baritone, Kim asked his voice teacher, Bienen School of Music senior lecturer Theresa Brancaccio ’82, ’83 MMus, if he could try singing in his head voice and falsetto — and discovered his vocal superpower. He was actually a countertenor.

“Countertenor is the word for guys who sing basically in female register,” explains Kim. “It was like I was seeing the world in Technicolor for the first time. I felt really comfortable. Being gay and having been effeminate most of my life, I never really thought that it could be something that I could use as a positive to find my place in this really competitive operatic world. But as a countertenor, I could.”

Credit: Victor Santiago

Kim’s talent and newfound focus opened doors, allowing him to step out of the chorus and into lead roles. “Musical theater casting is very visually specific,” Kim says. “So being an Asian [man], there are many parts that I could never be considered for. Whereas opera, funnily enough, as stuffy as it can be, is way less racist in casting. So I could finally do some romantic lead roles that I never got to do [before].”

Kim, who moved to suburban Chicago from Gimhae, South Korea, in sixth grade, also found ways to express himself outside of opera as a member of Northwestern’s Fusion Dance Company and a drag enthusiast. “Sophomore year, I competed in the Northwestern Drag Show along with my dance crew members from Fusion, and we won. Junior year I hosted the show, and senior year I was a judge.”

In his senior year, Kim decided to drop his computer science major to focus on singing. In the vocal department at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, the required Vocal Solo Class allows everyone in the voice program to perform one song each. Kim gave a performance in drag as “Kimchilia Bartoli,” in honor of his favorite opera singer, Cecilia Bartoli. After he uploaded a video of the performance to YouTube, it went viral — “well, by viral standards 10 years ago,” he says. “That got me auditions and job offers from regional opera companies right away, but I decided that if I went straight into performing with my level of education, I wouldn’t last very long.”

Kim decided instead to pursue his master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Yet his viral fame lived on. After not being able to attend an audition in London for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, one of the producers who had seen Kim’s video reached out to him personally to ask him to audition at a separate time in Vienna.

“And that got me hired at the opera festival. I got to tour France for about a year and a half right out of my master’s [program],” Kim says. “That allowed me to debut at so many different theaters in France and also make connections that got me future gigs. … The very first spark was at Northwestern, and the light was still lit two years later.”

This big break led Kim to break new ground. In 2019 he became the first man to sing the role of Cherubino at London’s Royal Opera House in Sir David McVicar’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Kim first discussed the role with Gardiner while performing in a six-month–long international tour of Monteverdi’s three operas. Gardiner, who conducted the performances, asked Kim if he sang the role of Cherubino, a young lovesick page. “I said, ‘Yes, I sing it, but if I were a casting director, I would never cast a man to do it because it’s very clear in the music that Mozart had written the role for a young soprano. At the same time, I sing the role because I know I can bring something new to the table dramatically without compromising the integrity of Mozart’s music.

“John Eliot told me, ‘Very interesting. I appreciate that.’ Then some years passed, and he apparently told the Royal Opera House that he insisted on having me as Cherubino.”

That production — and Kim’s performance — was a hit. “There were a lot of skeptics who thought a countertenor singing Cherubino would never be right,” Kim says. “But when it was [performed and] broadcast online, the comments were really, really good. … It also had one of the best groups of people I have worked with in my career, and it was a production where every little detail was just so right. It was really a dream come true. And I didn’t even know that I had this dream.” 

Now, despite the pause in live performance due to COVID-19, Kim is still in demand.

In early June, the legendary opera house La Fenice in Venice, Italy contacted him with a request to step in as a replacement performer in their production of Farnace by Vivaldi. “I received the music, which I've never sung before, on Wednesday and by Saturday, I was on stage, rehearsing the staging – in the very city where this work premiered [in 1727].” The opera opened to live audiences on July 2.

This September he will return to the Wiener Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera, to reprise his performance in a live production of Das verratene Meer (The Betrayed Sea) by Hans Werner Henze with a German libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel based on Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. The opera was filmed and broadcast last year but never performed in front of an audience.

After that, Kim will head to Hessisches Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, Germany, to play the role of the witch in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. The role is usually performed by a tenor. “Dramatic singers do it one octave lower, because it’s more menacing,” Kim says. “But also, I can be menacing!”


Martin Wilson ’10 MS is director of creative production in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

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Reader Responses

  • He's great and makes a wonderful Cherubino. I'm close enough to Manhattan to take in the opera at the Met.

    Patricia Endress ’54 Sherman, Conn., via Northwestern Magazine

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