Rose Jang, who was born in Princeton and raised after age seven in Short Hills, just happened to have been in South Korea when the country was attacked by North Korea a couple of weeks ago. She had been scheduled to do an interview on the same morning the Communist military shelled a small South Korean fishing island, killing civilians and military personnel, so naturally there was concern about her well-being.
“Though I was born and raised in America, I’ve been back and forth between South Korea and here for about five years now,” says Jang in a phone interview from New York, where she spends roughly half her time. “I have to say, I’m not at all intimidated by Kim Jong Il, because we’ve had so many threats. Every year he’s tried to threaten us. I think the severity of the most recent bombing is a little more scary but we go on with our daily lives, and we don’t attach much importance to it. He tries to scare us, and he tries to threaten us, and it doesn’t work. We know he’s not going to do anything, because if he does, he knows his country will be destroyed.”
Roselyn Jang, 31, is an opera singer by trade, a Korean-American woman who represents both nations and cultures via her music. Her repertoire ranges from the traditional operatic repertoire to Broadway and the classic American songbook. Jang will perform a holiday concert on Tuesday, December 21, at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus.
She has been officially named a cultural ambassador by the South Korean government and often appears on South Korean television. Jang is also a spokesmodel in Korea for Lancome cosmetics and has modeled for the Korean editions of Elle, Vogue, and Marie Claire magazines. She has also been the subject of a documentary.
Her father, Daniel, is a biochemist who received his doctorate from Princeton University and eventually invented the 24-hour time-release capsule, which is used in a multitude of drugs today. He later took over BioEnergy Inc., a company he once worked for, and now manufactures vitamins under several trademarks and brands. Jang’s mother, Carolyn, was a stay-at-home mom who raised Rose and her older brother, Andrew.
Jang’s parents currently are based in Warren. They stay connected to Princeton on several levels, however, including spiritually, as members of a Korean Presbyterian church in town.
Jang began singing and playing violin at the age of four, and the first places she performed were in church and in elementary school (in Short Hills). She played violin in the New Jersey Youth Symphony and also studied piano. Jang also began acting when she was 14. “That’s why I’m able to sing all of these musical diva songs with some feeling,” she says. She majored in art history at Smith College and admits that “college was a very confusing time for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I thought music was a difficult life. So I decided to study art history because while it wasn’t really a passion of mine, I thought it would be good to be in one of the top art history departments in the world.”
After Jang graduated from Smith, she worked at auction houses in New York and London and traveled through Europe. In New York she took acting and singing classes, ultimately ending up with private voice teacher Mary Setrakian, who had helped actress Nicole Kidman prepare for her featured role in “Moulin Rouge.” Setrakian, who has also worked with James Gandolfini and Milla Jovovich, encouraged Jang to perform. “She told me, ‘Look, you’ve got to become a singer. There aren’t many Asians like you. There’s just none,’” Jang says. There are so few Asian women out there who are multifaceted performers — who can sing, model and act, Setrakian told Jang. “She told me, ‘You have this great voice and this look. If you went to Korea, you could be even more famous.’”
While all of this encouragement was great for Jang, she says she became a singer for one simple reason. “I became a singer because I love to sing, not because I wanted to be famous.” Her breakthrough role, believe it or not, was in an Off-Broadway African-American gospel musical called “Go Back and Get God.” “I was the only Asian in the cast, it was so funny,” she says. “It was a great experience, though.”
In 2004, after a couple of other Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway roles, Jang met a young Korean film composer named Ji Bark. “He wanted me to come to Korea and make an album with him. I ended up staying there for a long time,” she says.
Jang’s introduction to Korea and Korean culture was shocking for her. “At first it was really difficult for me, because I didn’t speak the language that well,” she says. “I was in culture shock. I had been living in New York for so long, and now I’m in Seoul, Korea, totally out of my comfort zone. But I told myself I’m here to sing, to make my audiences happy.”
Jang began establishing herself in Korea with the help of her father, who gave up his controlling interest in his business to his son and moved to the land of his birth to help his American daughter adapt and flourish. “My dad had a lot of connections from high school and college, and he used them,” Jang says. She sang at the inauguration of President Lee Myung Bak and represented Korean culture during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the Argentine football association president asked her to sing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” to him. “It was very moving,” she says.
She also performed the South Korean national anthem at a Formula One auto racing event in Seoul this year. “It was pouring that day, and all the cars were just, like, ‘I gotta go, vroom, vroom. I was wondering where (champion) Michael Schumacher was. It was exhilarating — 600 million people around the world watching this race at one time.”
Jang’s transformation from fish out of water to Korean cultural ambassador has been an amazing experience, she says. “I love Korea. I really grew up American — as a kid I didn’t even have any Korean friends. But now I know the language pretty well, and I am crazy about Korean food. Korea is a beautiful country, with the Yellow Sea on one side and the Sea of Japan on the opposite end, and there are beautiful mountains. It’s a gorgeous country. Seoul is a bustling city, with people always on the move. New York is great, but Seoul is so clean and modern. Korea has progressed so quickly in just 40 years.”
Spoken just like a true Korean cheerleader.
Rose Jang, New Jersey Youth Symphony, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Tuesday, December 21, 7:30 p.m. Carols, musical highlights, and opera arias presented by the Korean-American pop opera artist. $20 to $70. 609-258-5000 or www.njys.org.