Her career emerged from Phila. tragedy

When singers dream about making a comeback in Philadelphia, never is it the nightmare that befell the emerging Korean soprano Hyunah Yu.

Once a stalwart of Presbyterian church choirs here, the Baltimore-based Yu then studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the Marlboro Festival, made her major-label recording debut on EMI, and was fielding offers from major opera companies and preparing for concerts, some in Philadelphia. Then, early this year, a tire blew out on her car on 1-95 as she drove from Princeton to Baltimore.

Seven cars piled up, but there were no significant injuries. Still, Yu was sent off in an ambulance, only to step out into the same emergency room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where, 14 years before, she learned that her husband had been shot to death in a carjacking.

"I was frozen," said Yu. "They thought something was wrong with me. They asked, 'Do you need a wheelchair?' And I was thinking, 'Oh my God! This is the same place I walked in with my church members, and nobody had told me that my husband might be dead.' Lord gracious!

"But, you know, I'm eternally grateful. It's unimaginable that my parents would have to come to the same place for two dead bodies, 14 years apart. I don't know what it is about Philadelphia," she says, "but I'll give it another chance."

That chance will come at 8 p.m. Thursday at the American Philosophical Society, when Yu will be guest artist at hornist Radovan Vlatkovic's recital. It's sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which has nurtured Yu's singing career as she emerged from tragedy.

Her then-infant son, Daniel, abducted briefly by the carjackers but found unharmed on that winter night, is now a typical Baltimore teenager. And the slim, stylish Yu, now in her 30s - she declines to be more specific - is expanding her career as a Bach specialist: Last summer, she made her Lincoln Center debut in the title role in Zaide, Mozart's unfinished but musically distinguished opera, as staged by the brilliant Peter Sellars.

Reviews consistently singled her out. In New York magazine, Peter G. Davis talked about her "creamy, agile soprano," and the New York Times' Allan Kozinn noted how her performance became "increasingly wrenching." Yu's teacher, the retired Philadelphia soprano Benita Valente, remembers catching her breath as the plot (at one point in the Turkish-harem tale, Zaide is brutally captured) took on parallels with real life - parallels Yu says she used in ways allowing her to go beyond acting.

"Some people say, 'How can this be your first opera?'. . . But I suffered like Zaide. It's the only way I can do it. I was in pain! I had bruises!"

That's just one way in which her past ambushes her. And with the public curiousity that comes with recordings and an opera career, it will continue to. In interviews, conversation inevitably turns to the murder.

"I was at a point where I didn't want to talk about it anymore," she said recently over coffee in downtown Baltimore. "I went to [president] William Brody at Johns Hopkins University - he's my mentor - and said that I want people to take me as the singer that I am. And he said, 'Hyunah, you can never run fast enough, far enough. You might as well embrace it.' "

He also pointed out that, musically speaking, Yu has paid her dues. And maybe then some.

Though her singing career seemed to come out of the side door - her degree is in molecular biology - hindsight suggests it was in the cards all along. Growing up in Texas, where her father was a Presbyterian minister, she was the family cellist. But when her pianist sister came home during summers from the Peabody Conservatory needing to practice art-song accompaniment, she drafted Hyunah for the big German song cycles. Even when studying biology at the University of Texas and sleeping just three hours a night, Hyunah managed occasional voice lessons.

Marriage brought her to Philadelphia. Both she and her husband, Yeong Ho Yu, were University of Texas students; once he earned his doctorate, Yeong took a job at the Boeing Defense and Space Group, Helicopter Division, in Delaware County.

After the couple had Daniel, they moved to Wilmington, but continued to attend Emmanuel Church in West Philadelphia. It was on Valentine's Day 1993, outside the church before services, that she last saw her husband alive: He stayed in the car to calm the cranky baby - and was shot point-blank by carjackers. Two brothers were caught, charged, and, after a high-profile trial, sentenced to life in prison.

There was no way she could stay in the Philadelphia area, so she moved to Baltimore, where her pianist sister - by now on the Peabody faculty - persuaded her to try vocal training. A network of contacts opened up, such as the Marlboro Festival, run by many of the people behind the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Her earliest and most significant break came in 1999 from Blanche Moyse, the longtime Bach conductor, also associated with Marlboro. The experience was literally religious: "When I was coming home after singing the St. Matthew Passion with Blanche, I decided that if I could only sing Bach for the rest of my life, I'd be happy."

She didn't stick with that vow, but the Moyse effect is apparent in the new EMI disc's tempos - the only source of consternation among critics.

Many things give Yu pause, but not that. The tempos are unfashionably slow, but that's how she feels the music. "Blanche was notorious for taking things slow; the older generation seems to like it," says Yu. "I had to breathe at every measure. And I thought, well, she knows what she's doing. So I tried to make it sound like I meant to do it that way. But when I got used to it and felt the beauty, it's magical."

As complicated as Yu's life is becoming, spirituality (she identifies herself as Presbyterian "but not stuffy Presbyterian") continues to be key in a life where the exhilaration of living and the grief of loss arrive in close succession. No doubt for her own sake as well as for the audience's, the excitable soprano prays to project the warmth and safety of that spirituality.

"It's not a ritual, but a part of who I am," Yu says. ". . . When I started singing, I experienced the healing power of music firsthand, and continue to."

In a way, everything is resolved, but nothing is resolved. "I still struggle," she says. "I do miss my husband. Sometimes, just going to Philadelphia is hard. I still don't know why God had to take Yeong. I have accepted it. But I still don't know the answer why."


Contact staff writer David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go. philly.com/davidpatrickstearns.