In the Spotlight
Excellence in Music Education
American Prize Nominee Spreads Her Love of Opera to Students & the World
January 27, 2017
By Ashley Festa
After falling in love with voice lessons, Dr. Sooah Park realized making music was her only option.
"Because I discovered my talent and desire for music so early on, I had nothing else to choose," said Park, assistant professor of music at The University of Texas at Tyler. "I didn't think of anything other than music."
She started her path into a singing career in Korea, where students as young as 14 or 15 years old begin getting serious about making music for a living. She came to the United States to attend the Eastman School of Music, a professional school within the University of Rochester in New York. She earned her master's and doctoral degrees at The University of Texas at Austin and began teaching voice at UT Tyler about four years ago.
“To make music and teach music is truly a blessing,” said Park, who also performs operas around the world. “As a musician, you don’t have any other option to making a living. Highly qualified opera singers go to many auditions in New York to get a gig. You have to have a different way to support yourself while you're waiting to have that break, like work at a restaurant or as a receptionist. I'm very lucky to have a job that I truly enjoy doing."
Dr. Sooah Park
Park and the UT Tyler Opera and Musical Theatre program received nominations for The American Prize in opera directing and opera performance categories, respectively.
Recognized Among the Best
While at UT Tyler, Park has also tried her hand at directing operas, and it turns out that she has a knack for that too. She was recently nominated for The American Prize in the opera directing category, and the UT Tyler Opera and Musical Theatre program was nominated in the opera performance category.
The American Prize is an online, nonprofit national competition in the performing arts open to people of all ages. Entrants—either ensembles or individuals—submit video recordings along with their applications to be considered for prizes.
“To be nominated as one of the 12 best opera directors, I don’t feel I deserve it,” she said. “I’m a voice teacher directing opera.”
But she says the nomination gives her confidence that what she’s teaching her students “is not completely off.”
As part of the Opera and Musical Theatre program, Park and her students stage productions for the Tyler community. One of her proudest accomplishments was the success of a children’s opera called “A Muskrat Lullaby,’’ which is one of the performances Park submitted to The American Prize.
After she chose the opera, the student performers complained it was too cheesy. Park insisted anyway—and all three performances sold out.
“People kept coming back because they had so much fun watching it,” she said. “Everyone finally saw what I saw and, ever since, I earned their trust and respect. Now they trust my taste.”
Besides having the satisfaction of a successful performance, Park also has the pleasure of offering a cultural experience to the community. Tyler residents have few opportunities to watch operas and musicals, so Park enjoys leading the arts development in that area.
She started with children’s theater, she said, because she wants to impart an appreciation for musical performance at a young age. Children as young as pre-kindergarten age are invited to learn about opera, including what the instruments are for and how directors come up with the production.
More than 1,000 tickets have already been sold for this year’s performances of "Fairytale Musical Scenes,'' set for March 31 and April 3 at UT Tyler's R. Don Cowan Fine and Performing Arts Center.
“I’m hoping that children will be exposed early on to this art form and that they’ll learn to love it,” Park said. “It’s a long-term investment. We’re planting seeds so it can grow and have deep roots; so this art form will not disappear, but it will prosper.”
Teaching in Tyler
Park admits she had to make quite an adjustment coming to East Texas. Because she delved into singing at a young age, it was a challenge for her to communicate effectively with students who didn’t necessarily have a strong music background.
To help, Park remembered the philosophy of one of her former voice teachers that has influenced her own teaching: Honesty without compassion does not change students.
“As artists, we are so vulnerable,” Park said. “Rejection is so hard to take. Even at my level, when someone doesn’t like what I do, I take it pretty harshly. When my students are developing their skills and aren’t mature yet, you have to understand that’s a very vulnerable spot. They have to receive criticism from someone who has a different background and ideas, so I have to be compassionate.”
Part of that compassion comes from understanding each student’s vocal “language,” or learning style. By knowing the best ways to communicate with each student, Park can tailor her instruction for every voice lesson.
She also reminds her students that success won’t happen overnight.
“I had a student who studied with me for two and a half years, and for two years, I said the same content in many different ways,” Park said. “This semester, she finally got it.
“I have to be creative with each individual student because they all develop and refine their skills differently,” she said. “Students can get frustrated, so I have to remind them that voice training is a long-term process. Anything valuable or priceless in your life will come slowly.”
One way she helps her students learn is through participation—they undertake a crucial role in directing operas for the community. Park says she steps down from her role as professor and instead becomes the head of a collaboration of students, a pianist, a conductor and others, which leads to a successful performance.
“It’s teamwork, and that’s what is so dynamic and exciting and beautiful in the classroom,” she said.
Playing the Part
Because the students take on acting roles for each show, Park explains the necessity of understanding the character they play. She emphasizes that becoming a character doesn’t always mean liking the character.
Taking the Stage
UT Tyler Opera and Music Theatre presents major productions each spring, open to all majors based on audition.
"They must live on the stage, in the moment, being that person," Park said.
"You have to embrace and understand what the character is about and be that person. You can't always be a charming prince or a gorgeous lady. Sometimes you have to be ugly, real, raw, vulnerable. That's life, and that's what an artist is called to do."
As an artist herself, Park has learned to live in the moment when she's on stage playing various roles. She's Korean, but refuses to be typecast as the lead role in the "Madama Butterfly'' opera. Instead, she has revealed her potential and proved herself to be a talented and multifaceted actress.
One role she particularly enjoyed was playing a little boy in the "Falstaff'' opera. She dressed, walked and acted like a boy, and in essence, became the boy.
The youthful professor has also played a nonagenarian.
"One time in Finland, I was a 92-year-old lady," she said.
"They had to find every possible wrinkle on my face and enhance it with makeup. I had makeup on my neck, hands, arms, everywhere. It literally took three hours to put on the makeup for me to look 92 years old. And I love every moment of being different people on stage."
A Growing Program
Park hopes the UT Tyler Opera and Musical Theatre program’s nomination for The American Prize will call attention to the expanding School of Performing Arts. She continues to work hard to increase enrollment in the program and credits her colleague Dr. Cameron Rose, the director of choral activities, for his influence.
She also hopes to earn more funding to continue creating outstanding performances. Because the program currently relies on limited resources, Park is especially proud of the award nomination.
“We don’t have an orchestra to play with opera, we don’t have our own venue, we don’t have a budget,” she said. “I just had a tripod video camera sitting in the middle of the audience and hoped it would catch good moments on stage.”
Park stresses she isn’t complaining about the program’s limited resources. Instead, she’s proud her students are capable of putting together winning performances with what they’re given.
“Other schools have a separate budget and 10 to 12 staff members who work for the production,” Park said. “Just the fact that we were shouldered with them in the nomination, it’s pretty amazing.
“I look forward to our future,” she said. “I can’t emphasize any more how much we’ve grown and how much potential this program has. Any support for this program to grow is a wonderful investment for our community.”
UT Tyler Opera and Music Theatre will present "Fairytale Musical Scenes'' at 7:30 p.m. March 31 & 9:30 a.m. April 3 at the Cowan Center. Enjoy scenes from "Into the Woods'' by Sondheim, "Cinderella" by Rogers and Hammerstein and "Aladdin" by Menken! For tickets, contact Maria Ogburn at firstname.lastname@example.org or the UT Tyler music office at 903.566.7450.