Korean-born, Kiev-trained opera singer Julia Han once thought her destiny was to be a dancer, like her mother, who taught traditional dance in Seoul.
That was before Han surprised even her own vocal teacher by winning first place in a singing contest in her native country when she was eight.
Han eventually chose to refocus her energies on launching a singing career. She first performed in the internationally recognized Korea Academy Children’s Choir, then attending prestigious music schools in the Ukraine and Poland.
Han later joined the Inchun Opera Company in her homeland, performed in Aida and Othello, and coached the children’s choir to a gold-medal performance in Beijing in 2006.
Now her destiny has led her to Red Deer.
Han and her husband, taekwondo master Seoungmin Rim, have between them travelled to about 30 countries. But when the time came to choose a place to settle down and one day raise a family, the couple decided on Canada.
Besides our peaceful national reputation, Rim explained that he’s impressed by the cleanliness of Canada’s air and water and the general friendliness of the people.
In many Asian, European and even U.S. cities, people seem stressed and have perpetual frowns on their faces, whereas Canadians — particularly those living in smaller centres — tend to smile more and acknowledge each other, said Rim, who was employed through the Korean Embassy to teach taekwondo to the Ukrainian military.
“They are happy, relatively. . . . You have clean air and good people.”
Two years ago, Han, 27, and Rim, 32, moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., where Han joined a choir and quickly became known for her lovely, soaring soprano voice.
The couple decided to relocate to Red Deer in 2008, so Rim could open his Master Rims Taekwondo studio on Ross Street. But Han returned to Ontario to perform as a soloist with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra in February.
She sang a combination of operatic favorites from Die Fledermaus, The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme, and show tunes, such as Over the Rainbow and Memory from the musical Cats.
Han said it takes a different kind of delivery to sing Broadway songs, but she enjoys popular music as much as opera. “Opera isn’t just about singing — it’s acting and body movements, too,” said the singer, who enjoys embodying the characters behind the music.
She becomes coquettish while performing Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, and switches to a soulful delivery for Ava Maria.
At the age of 15, Han became one of the youngest students to be accepted into the prestigious National Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev.
She recalled conservatory officials initially wanted her to finish high school, but reconsidered solely on the strength of her audition.
She buckled down and learned to speak and write in Russian, and obtained honours bachelor and master’s degrees from the conservatory within six years, rather than the usual seven.
Han chose to push her singing talent further by taking master’s classes at the Frederic Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, before returning to Korea to join the opera company in her hometown.
She eventually came full circle, becoming a vocal coach for the Korea Academy Children’s Choir — the same group she sang with as a child.
Last month, Han, whose father is vice-president of the second largest automaker in Korea, returned to her native country to visit relatives and to sing as a soloist in the world’s largest church in Seoul.
She laughingly admits she’s always the most nervous when performing for fellow Koreans. “I don’t know why.”
Han would love to find an opportunity to perform locally. Meanwhile, she enjoys giving private voice lessons to Red Deer youth, saying “seeing their improvement and progress is joyful.”