Last week, I paid a visit to the home of my predecessor, David Williams, to interview him about his amazing career as an opera harpist. Since the inception of the Dallas Opera in 1957, David Williams served as the principal harpist for an outstanding 46 years....
Her Career as a Violinist, a New Life in Texas, and Falling in Love With Opera
Grace Kang Wollett joined the first violin section of The Dallas Opera in the fall of 2014. Since then, she and her husband, Scott Wollett, welcomed their new son, Jonathan, into to the world in April 2015. To learn more about Grace, visit her website here.
April 4th, 2016
DOM: First off, thank you so much for meeting with me. It’s been so much fun getting to know you over the past 2 years. Now, before you moved to Dallas [to join the opera] in the fall of 2014, where were you living?
GKW: I was living in Manhattan; I graduated from Juilliard in 2012 and was freelancing for two years before I moved here.
DOM: And how long has you been living in New York City?
GKW: Since 2001, when my family moved to the US.
DOM: So do you consider yourself a New Yorker at heart or do you prefer the Texan way of life?
GKW: I never thought I’d be living in Texas. For some reason, in my mind, I would see cowboys and the country and I hear southern accents; I was so used to living in the city! But, I really like it here. I like how everything is more comfortable, more spacious. People are less angry, and nicer to each other. And I like the slower pace, actually - NYC was fast all the time, and in the end, I burned out - so I prefer the laid-back atmosphere.
DOM: I agree! So, backing up a little…how old were you when you started playing the violin, and did you always know you wanted to play the violin as a career?
GKW: I was closer to 8 years old when I started, and I was living in England, actually. My parents are missionaries. I was born in South Korea, but since I was three, we always moved from country to country. So, by the time we got to England, it was the same time when my school asked us to choose an instrument; so I picked violin. And my mom wanted me to pick the violin because it’s smaller, so we wouldn’t have to worry about packing it up when we moved around.
But I was really competitive. I tried to learn as much as I can. But I never thought that it was my “thing” until I turned 13. I remember that my dad and I got into an argument and he wanted me to choose what I really wanted to do in life…but I was too prideful to tell him then and there. So I later went into his office and I wrote down “VIOLIN” on a piece of paper for him to see later. So when he saw that, that’s when my parents said “Okay, let’s support this girl!” So, that’s how I decided.
DOM: Wow, that is an amazing story! So, when you joined the Dallas Opera, what was your prior experience with opera? Did you always know you wanted to play with an orchestra?
GKW: I always thought that my playing style wasn’t as condusive to orchestra playing, because I loved chamber and solo playing, and I’m not the “cleanest” player.
DOM: (laughs) That’s hard for me to believe!
GKW: So, I never thought I’d be in an orchestra. In school, when you’d be assigned to opera, people would say “aw, I feel sorry for you” because it’s such LONG hours of rehearsal; it was a different attitude amongst string players. But when I was at Juilliard, I played “The Bartered Bride” with James Levine conducting. And in the beginning, I couldn’t understand his conducting style because it seemed like he doesn’t conduct beats; he conducts the energy and the flow of the music; so he just keeps going…and so I tried to follow and I couldn’t fit in. And then I realized, he’s forcing me to listen; he’s not simply giving cues. And during that production, I feel like my ears really opened up; I started hearing things differently. So that was an amazing experience.
DOM: So what are some your favorite aspects of performing with The Dallas Opera? Have there been any particularly memorable moments or performances for you in the past two seasons?
GKW: In opera, I really love how it’s not just a performance where we walk on stage, we play, and then we leave. There’s so much more going on back stage…it’s not just “I’m ready to play so let’s start”, but everything has to come together. So sometimes there are delays or there’s drama, and you realize how much is going on.
DOM: Yes, it’s a big operation.
GKW: Yeah, it’s really cool to be a part of something so much bigger than your own part. I loved playing “Tosca”…and one thing I’m getting used to is that what I see on the page isn’t necessarily exactly how I need to play because of the timing and the rubato [not written] in the music….It’s so much more free. It’s definitely an adjustment, but I’m getting used to reading, watching, listening, following all at the same time.
Also, performing “Everest” was very powerful. The set was really incredible, very unique…and the music was so realistic and haunting. And the drama that the singers brought to the production was amazing to watch; the violin section can actually see the singers on stage….and half of us were bawling by the end. I realized I don’t usually cry after performing a symphony concert, so opera is especially powerful in that way.
DOM: Besides performing, what are some of your other passions?
GKW: I love to do crafts: paper crafts, knitting, sewing. I just love making things – it’s so therapeutic! I also love to cook…
DOM: So, after a long day of rehearsals at the opera, what would be the perfect meal to come home to?
GKW: If Scott suddenly transformed into an amazing chef, I would love a delicious fruit smoothie and some sushi. Sashimi is my favorite.
DOM: If you were stranded on a remote island with only one piece of music to listen to for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
GKW: One would be Chopin's Ballade No. 4 for solo piano, and the second would be “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I don’t need to hear anything else really, I just need to hear the theme from “Nimrod”…just when I’m about to lose hope, stuck on the island, I could listen to "Nimrod" and be comforted!
DOM: Finally, tell me a little bit about your one-year-old son, Jonathan. What are some of his favorite things to do, and do you think there will be music in his future?
GKW: Besides eating and sleeping, Jonathan loves to go outside, play peek-a-boo, and all the innocent child-like things that make life beautiful. I definitely want him to learn piano because it’s like the “king” of all instruments. But after that point, it’ll be up to him. I don’t think I’ll ever push him to become a musician in any way – but if he does, I’ll make him fight for it. Being a musician is not an easy life.
DOM: Indeed, but it’s a good one!
GKW: Yes…it’s a fun one if you love it!