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Phenom of the Opera : 'It's Cool,' a Young Singer Says as She Prepares for Her Big Moment


GLENDALE — Eight hours to curtain time.

Esther Lee is doing warm-ups with her vocal coach, Philip Roh. The Glendale teen-ager is preparing to sing an aria from Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" as one of two finalists in the opera portion of the Los Angeles Music Center's Spotlight Awards show, the biggest competition of her young life.

For now, the 16-year-old sits in a folding chair with her face between her knees so she can feel her diaphragm work as she hums the scales Roh plays on the grand piano in his mid-Wilshire area home. Her long, black hair cascades over the back of her head.

Minutes before, Lee laughed as she talked about her love of opera, an art that few adults, let alone teen-agers, appreciate these days.

"It's cool," she says. "That's my word for today. It's so different from popular music. The composer knows what the character is and gives you the notes to express that feeling."

Lee has always been interested in classical music, starting with piano lessons at age four.

"Everyone in my family plays something," she says.

Now, Lee is an infant in the world of opera, where careers do not usually start until singers are in their 20s and 30s.

"Technically, she's half the age of some of the older singers in the young singers programs," says David Anglin, of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, a translator who worked with Esther in a master class that is part of the Spotlight program. "Actually, Esther is a pretty rare bird. She sang an aria from the 'Magic Flute' with really great polish (in class), and I don't think it's spoon-fed. I think she has really great instincts."

Lee is a "coloratura soprano," a bright voice that can hit notes most people associate with pain.

"It's having the notes," says Los Angeles Opera mezzo-soprano Stephanie Vlahos. "To have high notes that go into the stratosphere and sort of stay there, that's an unusual talent."

On the short side of average height and wearing a black jumpsuit printed with white bows, Lee does not look the part of a diva. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Korean parents, Lee's mannerisms, laughter, and speech resemble most other American girls her age, which makes the maturity of her singing voice all the more shocking.

Roh, who is also from Korea, is the founder and artistic director of the Hanmi Opera, a Korean troupe based in Los Angeles. The arias that he has chosen for Lee to sing in the competition are light, though not easy: "Ach ich Fuhls" from Mozart's the "Magic Flute," and "Ah, Je Veux Vivre," the Gounod aria.

Both characters--Mozart's Pamina and Gounod's Juliet--are young girls. "Young, so it does not demand a heavy voice," Roh says. "The vocal cords and muscles are not ready" for characters that demand a bigger voice.

In addition to singing almost daily with Roh, Lee conducts the Hanmi Children's Choir, under Roh's supervision, when she's not practicing at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, her high school. Her social life is limited partly by her music and partly because of her parents' strict values.

"Music is your boyfriend," Roh teases.

"Juliet wanted freedom. I want a guy," Lee counters with a shrug.

Next, it's lunch and the beauty parlor. Lee pauses before leaving. She originally was going to be a doctor, she said, but turned to singing as a freshman in her high school choir.

"It's in me," she says of her singing. "It's something that wants to get out."

A little more than three hours to curtain.

Hair curled, makeup applied, Lee waits in her dressing room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Her two older sisters, Soo Lee, 25, and Sandra Lee, 22, are with her, as they have been all day. Lee's parents, who do not speak English, are working at the family's clothing shop in Koreatown. But they will be in the audience. The Lees immigrated to Brazil from Seoul, South Korea, in 1972. The family settled in Glendale in 1991. Lee pulls off the plastic covering the gown Soo Lee looked "all over" for. The black velvet top and sleeves are decorated with gold braid and faux jewels. The full, floor-length skirt is bright red. Lee touches her newly polished nails to the satin.

"They match!" she says.

This is the fifth year for the Spotlight Awards, started by television director Walter Grauman, a longtime Music Center volunteer. "I was looking for a way to enable young people who were not able to afford it to have that opportunity to express their talents," Grauman says. "Money wasn't the criteria. If you had the talent, you got here."

Barbara Haig, special projects producer for The Music Center, greets Lee before rehearsal and goes over her entrance and exit. Then conductor Jack Elliot introduces her to members of the Los Angeles Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, who will accompany her.

They go through the aria once for tempo, then Lee is directed to where she will perform. She sings again, this time with a video camera in her face. The rehearsal is being taped.

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