Popera group Letteamor hopes to assemble like the Avengers

Popera group Letteamor will go on a national concert tour starting from April. From left, members Park Hyun-soo, Gil Byeong-min, Kim Sung-sik and Kim Min-seok. [KIM HYUN-DONG]

Classical music and pop music in Korea have had an interesting relationship.

In 1989, singer Lee Dong-won and tenor Park In-soo collaborated on “Nostalgia,” the first operatic pop crossover song in Korean music history.

The song was met with strong criticism from Korea’s classical musicians. Park had been unofficially selected to be the new head of the Korea National Opera, but was forced to leave the organization altogether due to the backlash.

The unwelcoming atmosphere was still there when the JTBC show “Phantom Singer” launched in 2016 with the goal of creating a male crossover vocal quartet.

Many people in the classical field thought that once classical singers gain popularity in mainstream media, they rarely come back to classical music; hence the television show would not help the classical field.

Repertories performed on the show — strongly influenced by the classical crossover vocal group Il Divo — also lacked creativity.

Fast forward to 2021, and things have changed. It is now the golden age of operatic pop crossover, also known as popera.

JTBC's “Phantom Singer” has aired three seasons so far. The currently airing “Phantom Singer: All Star” features all 36 members of the top three groups from each of the seasons.

The lineup features popular groups formed through the show such as Forte di Quattro, Forestella, La Poem and RabidAnce. Other former contestants also include professional classical vocalists, musical actors, rock singers and even performers of gugak, traditional Korean music. The lineup is truly a crossover of various genres.

One of the alumni groups is vocal quartet Letteamor, which came in third place on the show’s third season last year. Members of other groups have been pursuing their individual careers since their season of “Phantom Singer” ended and recently reunited for the current show. Letteamor, on the other hand, decided to stay together. The quartet is to start its first national concert tour in April and is in the midst of recording its upcoming album.

Letteamor recently sat down for an interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Letteamor was formed in 2020 through the third season of JTBC’s music program “Phantom Singer.” [KIM HYUN-DONG]

Members of Letteamor come from diverse musical backgrounds. Prior to forming the group, Kim Sung-sik was an ensemble member in the musicals “Rebecca” and “Doctor Zhivago,” and that was his only stage experience. Kim Min-seok was a classical tenor who won the JoongAng Music Concours, hosted by the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC. Park Hyun-soo was a baritone who had already been active in the popera scene. Gil Byeong-min was a bass-baritone in the Royal Opera in Britain, which he quit in order to appear on “Phantom Singer.”

Although they came from different musical fields, the four men said they “decided to carry on with this fateful encounter.”

“There was no certain future for a team that came in third place [in an audition show]. But thanks to our fans, an agency offered us a contract. Although it was eventually our decision [to sign it], it felt like destiny,” said Gil.

“We were doing individual activities as well, but we wanted to become stronger as a team like the Avengers,” said Sung-sik.

Because “Phantom Singer: All Star” features previous winners, the participants have more professional pride at stake.

“We are actually busier now than when we were during the auditions. Back then, we had to compete as individuals. Now we have to show our identity and charm as a team from beginning to end. [This time] it’s a match with our pride at stake,” Gil said.

Members picked “Beautiful Moment” (originally a 2018 song by singer K.Will), which they performed on “Phantom Singer: All Star” in February, as their best performance so far.

“It was the first pop song we performed. We approached the song more casually than other songs, and we looked so good on screen. I got choked up because our group seemed so heartwarming,” said Park.

Letteamor is a portmanteau of “lettera,” an Italian word for “letter,” and “amor,” which is Latin for “love.” The group aspires to sing music that is as warm and romantic as its name.

Members of Letteamor [KIM HYUN-DONG]

Letteamor is nicknamed “blending matjip (must-visit restaurant)” by its fans for the members' talents at harmonizing. Paradoxically, Letteamor’s strength is that its members each have distinct voices, which are easily recognizable. The members say this is also true of their personalities.

“In the beggining of the show, we were a bit awkward with each other. But we became a team, and then brothers. We tried to help each other a lot, but I think I received the most help since I’ve never had professional training in this field,” said Sung-sik.

“We learned vocals and how to express our emotions during pop performances from Sung-sik,” Park added. “Our strength is that we learn from each other’s best qualities.”

“The four of us all have different specialties, and our genre is crossover. A chef can’t be good at cooking both Korean and Chinese food. So we try to play up our individualities and share our strengths at the same time. That way we can grow together,” said Gil.

The members say not all classical vocal music majors dream of becoming operatic singers.

“People think I grew up with [Italian operatic tenor] Luciano Pavarotti as my role model because I was in the Royal Opera,” said Gil. “In fact, I wanted to become a singer because of [Korean singer] Rain and [K-pop boy band] Shinhwa. I wanted to become a singer who entertains people with energy and performance."

“I majored in classical vocal music, but classical songs were too much for me," Park said. “I wanted to be a popera singer from the start, but I thought I had to first master classical music and then find my own identity as an artist. After Byeong-min kept complimenting my vocals, I became a bit ambitious with classical music. I’ll do it with confidence if given the chance.”

Letteamor will go on a national concert tour starting from cities in Gyeonggi in April. Goyang, Seongnam and Suwon will be their first destinations.

“Our fans must have been waiting for so long,” said Min-seok. “We are honestly quite nervous. We are thinking hard about what our fans would like to see.”

The concert will include each member's solo performances of songs they prepared for season three’s preliminaries.

Letteamor will also hold an opera gala concert in April.

Park held a solo concert “Dear Love: Day & Night” on March 27.

“I don’t have a role model. I want to be someone’s role model,” said Park. “The genre of my solo concert was Park Hyun-soo.”

Park says he wants to define himself as an artist, not just a singer. Being open to all fields of art is truly a sign of crossover’s golden era. If artists want to experiment between different genres and listeners want to see an artist’s various sides, there is no better time than now.