Star tenor Kim Min-seok makes solo return, says he's never felt more himself

Tenor Kim Min-seok [JOONGANG ILBO]

It has been one year since star tenor Kim Min-seok abruptly left the local music scene.

He was last seen in public as a member of the operatic pop, or popera, crossover quartet Letteamor which was formed during season three of JTBC’s survival show “Phantom Singer" (2020). His group won third place and established itself as an official band after the show, but Kim left in January last year, citing "mental health issues." He, as well as Letteamor, have been on a hiatus since then.

But Kim is back.

In January, he returned to the stage, performing next to world-class classical singers such as baritone Kim Gi-hoon and soprano Park So-young during Icheon Cultural Foundation’s New Year Concert at Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. Last month, he released his first solo album “Aria D'amore” which topped local music charts in the classical category. Earlier this month, he held his first recital at Lotte Concert Hall in Songpa District, southern Seoul.

His comeback, however, wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

Kim faced criticism after abruptly quitting Letteamor and he admits that his relationship with other members of the band has become awkward.

“For some three or four months [after announcing my departure from the quartet], I couldn’t do anything,” Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview last month. “I was mentally strained. I couldn’t see anyone or go out. I barely sang as well. But it turned out that a person can’t live like that forever. I slowly started seeing people and found vitality again, then tirelessly practiced for my return to the stage. The process of getting my voice back to the level it was before wasn’t easy. I realized that a classical singer’s body is like an instrument — prone to damage with even the slightest laziness on the singer’s part."

To those who say Kim's departure from Letteamor was irresponsible, he said that he was all “worked out.” In the band, Kim had to perform twice every day and was forced to sing in a higher range than what he trained for.

“I began singing in that band with a very thankful heart but I wasn’t able to handle the schedule,” he said. “The members tried to help but there were parts that just couldn’t be helped. At the same time, I didn’t want to let my fans down. I became very passive and timid. I finally decided that I couldn’t be in the band anymore and left it. I am very sorry for the other members.”

Kim Min-seok on season three of JTBC's "Phantom Singer" (2020) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

What gave him the courage to return to the stage was the support of his fans. During his time off, Kim said that he continued to read their comments every day.

“There was also a part of me that was scared to look up those comments,” he said. “I know many fans were disappointed by my leaving Letteamor and I still feel very sorry. But there were still some fans who empathized with my hardships and waited for me. They made videos of my past performances and messaged me with encouragements. I began to think that I needed to do something for them in return. I hope my recent album can be a meaningful gift to those who have long-awaited my return.

With a shy smile and kind eyes, Kim wasn’t too different than when he met with the JoongAng Ilbo two years ago, while he was busy competing in “Phantom Singer.” When he talked about the disappointment that he caused fans, he quickly teared up.

He did, however, appear more talkative than before.

“To be honest, I was busy being careful and watching the reactions of others before. I can be a bit of an unpredictable character, and back then I wanted to hide that and showcase a perfect image for the team."

When asked if he thinks of himself as erratic, he laughed and said, “I’ve heard that but I think I’m normal.”

“These days, I want to show my natural side and be more honest in my answers. Now, as a solo artist, I feel more responsibility but I think this is more me.”

His first solo album “Aria D'amore” is a compilation of eight classical pieces recorded with orchestra accompaniment, such as “Che Gelida Manina” from the 1895 opera “La Bohème” and “Celeste Aida” from the 1870 opera “Aida.”

Kim Min-seok's new album titled "Aria D'amore" [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“I selected iconic arias that any tenor would like to try singing once in his life,” he said. “They are all songs that I dreamed of singing when I was a classical singer student in university. I heard that there aren’t many instances where a tenor records an album with orchestra accompaniment so I worked extra hard. If you ask me what the lead track of the album is, I would say it is ‘Che Gelida Manina.’ Those who heard me sing it gave me positive feedback and it was a song that I really wanted to sing all the way to the end."

Kim said that he wants to be known, not as a pop or a crossover musician but as a “traditional tenor who is also able to sing many other genres.”

During his April 1 concert, he performed both traditional classical pieces as well as songs from pop-opera musicals.

“It isn’t very often that a singer performs various genres in one recital,” he said, citing the nervousness he felt about the concert. “Classical and pop require very different singing skills so without careful calculations, the singer might strain his or her throat. I want to show people that I am an opera singer but can also sing a wide array of songs without a microphone."

The set list for the recital included arias in the first half and musical numbers in the second, such as “Music of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera,” “This is the Moment” from “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Maria” from “West Side Story.”

Kim revealed that he was interested in starring in an opera or a musical.

“I starred as Ferrando in [Mozart’s 1789 opera] ‘Così Fan Tutte’ when I was a university student,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that I can do it professionally since it is something that takes a lot of time and effort, and I have no experience acting. But if I get a call to audition for the ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ I would gladly accept it — maybe even try out for the main role of the Phantom!”