She's more comfortable flying under the radar than in the bright light. And offstage, she can be self-effacing to a fault. But no matter how quietly she goes about her business, there's no discounting the formidable gifts of Los Angeles' own Daisietta Kim, a much-honored soprano, pianist, dancer and choreographer who also plays violin and organ.
These days, Kim's business is the world premiere of "WINDUP," a mixed-media piece she created for herself and will present at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Monday as part of a concert by the contemporary music ensemble Xtet. The 19-year-old group, which she cofounded, will join her.
The event promises to showcase in one fell swoop the varied skills that have made Kim a champion of the avant-garde.
What audiences familiar with her have heard over the years, in works by John Cage, Lukas Foss and others of their ilk, is a singer who -- depending on a piece's expressive demands -- can maneuver her voice to sound gritty and cynical or lurid, to sustain long lines with purity of tone and to find every dramatic nuance while maintaining a full range of dynamic control.
Monday's performance will be "a big, risky thing for me because I'm not primarily a theater person," she says, though she acknowledges that "fear brings its own thrill."
"But I thought I had a good story here, about a performer who's tormented with self-doubt. Am I good enough? Am I ever good enough? Finally, the character realizes those questions are moot, unnecessary. And there's freedom in that."
Kim, 54, traces the newfound sense of freedom she shares with her character to an experience two years ago that "opened up a whole world to me": singing and theatricalizing the title role in Arnold Schoenberg's landmark 1912 chamber work "Pierrot Lunaire" in a strikingly imaginative performance with Xtet at the Getty Center.
"I'd never been allowed to act before," she says, "because musicians naturally end up wearing a certain straitjacket. They stay confined to the instrument."
Yet somehow, portraying Pierrot as a commedia dell'arte character liberated her. Ignoring Schoenberg's wishes, she not only vocalized the part -- a strange, mocking specter who, in his moonstruck sorrow, both scorns the world and feels menaced by it -- but limned it in movement.
"In fact, performing the work as a theater piece unleashed a demon in me," she says, sitting inside LACMA's semidark Bing Theater after a recent rehearsal. She looks not a bit like a wild-eyed artist, though her talk is full of vocal variety: great enthusiastic surges up and down the scale, and gusts of tickled laughter at her own revelations.
"Now, with 'WINDUP,' I'm doing something entirely new -- creating, instead of interpreting what already exists."
Although she is responsible for the text and production, the musical sources for "WINDUP" include a Schubert song snippet and some flashy little Poulenc stanzas, along with excerpts from Mozart, Stravinsky, Debussy and the contemporary composer of electronica Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin.
"I could be accused of dilettantism," she says. "But was Cocteau a dilettante?"
The whole piece, she explains, is a kind of dream, maybe even a Walter Mitty dream.
"In it, I can do everything. During the conducting part" -- in which she wields a baton to sections of "The Rite of Spring" -- "I revel in feelings of grandiosity. Which, of course, is the other side of self-doubt."
Born in New York to Korean parents -- her father was a European-trained architect who earned a master's at Columbia and her violinist mother a Juilliard graduate -- Kim grew up near Fresno in Reedley, Calif., "the fruit basket of the world." She began dance and drama classes at 4 "because my mother wanted to correct my shyness, and I guess it worked," she says with a smile, adding that piano lessons started shortly after.
She continued her musical pursuits at Smith College, where she founded a chamber orchestra and served as assistant conductor of the Smith-Princeton Chamber Singers, with whom she toured South America.
A versatile career
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she went on to study at the Franz Schubert Institute in Austria under the distinguished German bass-baritone Hans Hotter -- and took the 1978 Schubert prize there -- before embarking on her multifaceted performing career.
Kim's father "always wanted me to be a scholar, a philosophy professor," she recalls. But once he realized her destiny was music, he was accepting -- "with one caveat: 'As a performer,' he said, 'you're living on a high-tension wire where you'll always be dependent on what others think.' "
Still, that part of her career, at least, has not proved unsettling. "I love getting it all out onstage, and with lots of intensity -- the joy, the rage. I'm very comfortable doing that. But not so in real life, not when people expect me to be something more than an ordinary person.