Soprano Hyunah Yu

Soprano Hyunah Yu learned, after personal tragedy, to open her heart again to the pain and joy of it all. (Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri / November 21, 2003)

MARLBORO, Vt. -- As violin and woodwind music swells behind her, Hyunah Yu, one of America's fastest-rising classical vocalists, sits in a simple chair at the front of the stage, small hands folded as if in prayer. It's the 35th New England Bach Festival, and amid the golden splendors of fall in rural Vermont, five solo vocalists are among 100 musicians who will give voice, over the next three hours, to Johann Sebastian Bach's narration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christmas Oratorio.

Critics call the Korean-born Yu, a soprano, a phenomenon on the verge of international renown. In an elegant, full-length black dress, the Peabody Institute graduate draws attention even in repose. Her eyes close, eyelids fluttering as if they're riding on an updraft of sound. "I'm listening to everything," she later observes. "The music moves me so."

When her turn comes, surrender yields to command. She rises to a height that seems grander than her actual 5 feet 3 inches, libretto on one arm, reaching toward the audience of 400, palm skyward, with the other. The small frame delivers a sound that reverberates through the hall with a startling power. "Fear not," she sings, her voice both potent and quavering, the very timbre of one of Bach's angels. "For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

To hear Yu is to discern the sound of rising stardom. "It's not necessary to know a thing about her past," says a mentor, Peabody director Robert Sirota, to know that "you're in the presence of something special" when she takes the stage. "Even though she is very much a diva, there's a selflessness to what she does. People respond to that. It's genuine."

Yu knows the awesome power of tragedy and transformation; vivid and fragile, she calls to mind that spirit come to earth. Eyes half-closed, she begins with a tone in the middle registers, escalating pitch in stages so finely calibrated it sounds as though she's unfurling a flag on a rising wind. The final, gleaming note -- an oscillating banner of sound -- shimmers, then yields to silence. She returns to her seat.

Later, she tries to verbalize how she summons the sad and the satisfying, the ancient and the new, and gives them sound. The closest she can come is to recall the words of a speaker at her 1996 graduation, jazz-pop vocalist and classical conductor Bobby McFerrin. "He told us that, as a performer, you have two ways to go," she says after a pause. "There's control, and there's surrender. If you lose your technique, you can forget performance. At the same time, you want to let the music take over, let the moment take you, maybe let something happen you didn't prepare.

"It's scary to leave yourself vulnerable," she says, choosing words she might well have used to describe her own life of triumph and tragedy. "But that's what makes live performance so wonderful. I want others to open their minds and hearts, to feel that I'm just like them when I talk about love, about longing and pain.

"That way, the music can get inside them and do to them the same things it has done to me."

Yu, 35, didn't always surrender to music, though she can't recall a time when it didn't fill her home. Her father, the Rev. David J. Park, a Presbyterian minister in Baltimore, made sure of that. A refugee from northern Korea before the war, he spent so many years living by his wits that he was never able to develop his first aesthetic love: classical music. Instead, after assuming leadership of a congregation in Austin, Texas, in 1981, he made it the soundtrack to the lives of his five children, including Hyunah, his headstrong second-born.

To Hyunah (usually pronounced HYUNN-uh or HUNN-uh) Yu, Park is still the man who can do anything -- fix a car, wire a house, solve a dilemma -- all the while epitomizing Christian faith by way of the earnest effort he brings to what he does. "He doesn't do it by following rules," says Yu, "but by living the love inherent in the Scriptures as honestly as he can. I see him fall, but what matters is I see him really trying." The example has rubbed off on Yu, who says her beliefs radiate in all she sings.

Admiration didn't always mean acquiescence. Park, who sees music as a means of flooding the world with God's affection, prayed that his children would pursue it professionally. His hope combined with what Yu calls a traditional Korean expectation that women incline toward art to generate what felt like pressure.

Like most American teens, she'd have none of such a plan. Her black-sheep choice? Medicine. "When I was in high school," she says, "I felt that I had a calling. Not the way you hear a voice, but I heard it and felt it, a mixture of the two. I actually felt God telling me, 'Be my hands.' And I thought, 'Doctors heal people; they are God's hands. That's what I'm going to do.' " It was no idle hope. A brilliant pupil, she studied genetics independently in high school and earned a molecular biology degree at the University of Texas.

By the late '80s, her plan seemed ready to blossom. As a 20-year-old sophomore, she met 27-year-old Yeong-Ho Yu, a handsome doctoral student in artificial intelligence whose talents in areas from cooking to sports evoked her father. They bonded profoundly. When a job offer from Boeing's helicopter division took Yeong to Philadelphia, Hyunah Yu put her medical aspirations on hold and went along.

"I was so confident then," she says, "not really in such a nice way. I was a go-getter. A lot of things were about me, me, me. Anything I put my mind to, I could do. I was a diva before I even sang! So foolish."

Yeong didn't seem to mind. He showed her, she says, what it meant to love. They bought a house, joined a Korean Christian church, sang in the choir, made friends. They had a baby boy, Daniel, who even as an infant looked so much like Yeong he seemed a carbon copy. Both adored him. Before long, she'd have her own career back on track.

Communists had put her father to rout, and he had adapted courageously, without complaint. But that was another time, another place. This was America; she was Hyunah Yu. Things were clear, well defined. Certain.

It happened on Valentine's Day, less than two weeks shy of their second wedding anniversary. The couple, members of a young-marrieds group in their church, were helping organize an evening service, including a choir performance.

When the family arrived at Emmanuel Church in downtown Philadelphia, it was frigid and dark, though at 6:30 p.m. they were an hour early. Yeong noticed that 5-month-old Daniel, recovering from a cold, had finally fallen sound asleep in his car seat. He'd stay to watch the boy. "Why don't you go in and practice, Hyunah?" he said. As she entered the building, she glanced back to see him in the front of their new Acura Legend, quietly singing from his hymnal.

How strange that the teen-age boys who changed their lives had no criminal background, no record of trouble. Good students, both. They lived in a high-rise housing project next door. Having seen the steady stream of pricey cars in the church lot every Sunday, they decided to take one for themselves. About 6:45, they spotted the perfect target: a gleaming, charcoal-gray import with tinted windows and the engine running.