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INTERVIEW | Catching Up With CMIM 2018 Winners Mario Bahg And John Brancy

By Ludwig Van on June 30, 2021

(L-R) Mario Bahg (Photo: Dario Acosta) / John Brancy (Photo: Bowman Media)
(L-R) Mario Bahg (Photo: Dario Acosta) / John Brancy (Photo: Bowman Media)

Just over a month ago, Ludwig Van reported on the stunning win by South Korean pianist Su Yeon Kim at the 19th annual Concours musical international de Montréal.

Reaching back in time, we thought it would be fun to check in with past CMIM winners to see how they are doing.

We spoke with 2018 CMIM first place winners Mario Bahg, (tenor/ South Korea) and John Brancy (tenor/United States) to ask them about their fondest memories of winning, career impacts, coping with the pandemic, creative highlights, and future plans.

It’s been a while since the CMIM 2018 competition. Besides winning, what do you remember most about the competition?

Mario Bahg: I learned a lot from CMIM. The journey in Montréal was a very happy moment for me. I remember the reunion with jury member Ben Heppner, the tenor I admire so much, and the many wonderful singers who competed, my lovely host family. The pianist, Marie-Ève Scarfone, and the OSM that I worked with were fantastic!

John Brancy: One of the distinct memories I had during the 2018 competition was performing for the great audiences of Montréal. I feel a beloved energy from your audience members; the way they listen and their attentiveness to every phrase and word sung is unique to them and very much appreciated from the perspective of the performer. It brought an extra special something to the experience of competing in such a high-stakes competitive environment.

I’m looking forward to experiencing their joyous energy again very soon!

How has winning first prize at the CMIM 2018 affected your career?

Mario Bahg: CMIM 2018 changed my music life. Actually, I participated in CMIM without any professional experience. And after winning CMIM, I debuted at Opera de Montréal. I got to sing for tens of thousands of people outside the Olympic Stadium with the OSM, and I got the chance to work at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. If I didn’t participate in CMIM, it would never have happened.

John Brancy: The first prize has been a blessing for me these past few years. One thing, in particular, has been the generous support of the James Norcop Career Development Grant. With this grant, I was able to finish and release a live album as well as a feature-length documentary film that I co-wrote and directed with Peter Dugan. Peter and I released The Journey Home Live from the Kennedy Center this past Memorial Day weekend, and we hope it will be heard and seen by many. You can view the film any time on the new AllArts App via any Apple TV, Roku or Amazon Fire device under their performance selects. As well, the album is streaming on all major providers!

It’s been 16 months since the pandemic hit. How have you been adapting to the COVID-19 situation?

Mario Bahg: The past few months have been very difficult with COVID-19. In fact, it’s been a tough time for everyone, not just artists. Of course, things are better now. The hardest thing for me was having no audience. I’ve sung a few livestreaming concerts. But this is not normal. The singer is very happy and can show off better performance with the applause and cheers of the audience. But this could happen again in the future. So our artists have to train and prepare for this kind of thing.

I become an artist only on stage. Of course, I have to practice and train to prepare for the stage. But I’m just like any other young man off-stage. I travel, enjoy pop music, and have a lot of hobbies. If I have to focus everything on art just because I’m an artist, I’ll never be an artist 🙂

John Brancy: Thank God for Zoom! I have been teaching — quite a bit, to be honest, and I love it. I have taught upwards of 30 students one-on-one consistently throughout the pandemic, and around 80+ more in group workshop settings. This has been an enormous help for me financially, but artistically even more so. I have been able to connect with singers from all over the world at various levels of development and expertise. I coach some singers to help them get into prestigious Graduate-level voice degrees and Young Artist Programs.

I am astounded and inspired by the talent in the upcoming generation of singers, and in awe of their drive and interest in our artform. I applaud each and every one of them for bearing this year and continuing to study, Bravo! I feel a strong kinship towards them and know they carry the torch for what we all love and do. My hope is to continue teaching, but ideally by presenting more masterclasses at universities around the world and larger online workshops. I can safely say that I have developed my own technique for teaching, and I may venture into creating a curriculum based on it, in the future.

Mario, you’re currently in Cologne doing the German premiere of the reconstructed original version of Gounod’s ‘Faust’. What can you tell us about that?

Mario Bahg: This is a very interesting question for me. I sing Faust in this Cologne Opera. Several lines and interesting directions have been added to Faust’s music, which we commonly know. And after singing Faust’s famous aria ‘Salut! demure chaste pure’, Gounod added a new music expressing inner confusion. This music can only be heard in the new version. The original sheet music was discovered in a flea market by someone and first published in September 2020.

John, congrats on your Grammy Award win for your work on ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’! What was that experience like?

John Brancy: Well, for one, it was very unexpected! I did not think our album would be nominated, let alone, win the Grammy! Being a Grammy Winner is one of the greatest achievements a musician can get in their lifetime. To be amongst such incredible artists and giants of music is truly humbling. My wish is for Peter and I to some day achieve this together for one of our classical solo vocal albums. We have more planned for the future, so there is a lot of room for opportunity here!

As an artist, what would you say is your personal relationship to music? Are you able to separate being musicians from your daily life, or are they one and the same?

John Brancy: The pandemic has taught me a lot about this particular subject. In isolation, we were made to look at things as they really are, for ourselves and for the collective. I spent time slowing down and recognizing what in my life needs to change or what can be done differently. I’d say the most important lesson I’m learning these days is to be kind to myself and to others in my field, and to be more open to listening to what others may need. This career and the lifestyle that is associated with it can be quite hard to deal with at times. This past year really showed us all how vulnerable our jobs are and how necessary having a support system in place truly is. There is also a lot of pressure to be perfect, to present at your highest level possible, and there never being much room for slowing down. I realize now that for me to have a long-lasting, fulfilling career in music, I will need to embrace becoming much more balanced with my career and my personal life. And take these new lessons into my career moving forward.

What’s next for you?

Mario Bahg: I’m going to have a busy schedule in Korea. I was sorry that I couldn’t perform on many stages in my hometown due to COVID-19. Mozart Requiem, Beethoven Symphony No. 9, my solo Cultural, and many more. I sing in Lisbon (Portugal), Amsterdam and New York from 2022.

John Brancy: I feel beyond fortunate and grateful to say that I have a rather full and challenging operatic season ahead, with several role and company debuts. Some highlights I’m super excited about are making my return to San Francisco Opera in my role debut as Guglielmo, in Canadian Director Michael Cavanagh’s production of Cosi Fan Tutte, opposite the great Mozart tenor Ben Bliss. As well as my company debut at Opera de Montréal for their World Premiere of La Beauté du Monde. It is truly a delight to be part of such an illustrious Canadian cast in what promises to be an incredible piece and production. More info about my upcoming season can be found via my website.


Funding in support of this content has been generously provided by The Azrieli Foundation.


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