ALIVE Interview: Carol Wong, Pianist And Founder of Sing for Siteman, Discusses The Benefit Happening Monday
Carol Wong returns to St. Louis next week for the sixth Sing for Siteman, the annual cancer benefit she founded to benefit the collaborative oncology center of Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The evening event, on Monday, June 15 at John Burroughs School, brings together young singers from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and from across the country to give a performance prior to a wine and dessert reception. Wong, a world-renowned solo classical pianist, has performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the California Center for the Arts and many other noteworthy spaces. We caught up with her when she was in New York to talk about the benefit.
ALIVE: So you created Sing for Siteman in memory of your father, who died of cancer in Hong Kong, and to honor your mother, herself a cancer survivor. Why Siteman, why the Opera, and why St. Louis?
Carol Wong: I looked for a hospital to donate the funds to, and Siteman was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to give to cancer research, and they’re just the best hospital. They have the best care—I can’t believe that they’re in St. Louis. The first year I had to beg people to come, and it was really difficult. I didn’t know if anyone would come, but it’s doubled in donations every single year. I think the first year, we made $2,000, then $5,000, then $10,000 and then $20,000. I’m really excited that it’s happened, because I didn’t know if it would happen the first time.
ALIVE: You also were awarded a grant, Sing for Hope, that celebrates world-class performers and their passions for humanitarian causes. How were you inspired to intertwine your piano career with these passions?
CW: I have to admit that I don’t really talk about this too much, but I always had difficulty being a musician only because I wanted to be someone who made a direct impact on others’ lives. I wanted, literally, to be part of some movement to change the world. So it was difficult for me to be a musician, because I didn’t think I could do something like that.
When I found out about this grant, I immediately applied, and I was so honored to win it, which is probably my dream come true: to make a difference and to use my skill as a musician. Siteman is an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m so happy that … that I have this support, and all the singers feel the same way because they’re so busy, and they’re not able to give, and they’re doing the same thing—here’s an opportunity to make a difference.
ALIVE: How do you select the programming each year? There seems to be a huge variety.
CW: I make sure that there’s something for everybody, meaning that it’s not going to be all serious or all laughing. It’s a combination of everything, and I’ve had people tell me time and time again that they laughed and they cried at the recital—I’ve been to movies that do that. I want that reaction; I want them to be moved. It’s a recital that touches all emotions, so that’s what I want it to be: to entertain in every possible way. I go to concerts all the time; I go on YouTube; I do everything to find material; and I think I have a really good show this year. I have everything from a Viennese waltz to a tango to cabaret. I make sure that it’s fun. That’s what I want it to be: fun. I go to recitals—you don’t understand how many I go to, maybe 3 or 4 a week, an obscene about of times—I know what I want. I don’t want to be sitting there for two and a half hours.
A greater benefit to this recital is that there’s going to be a reception where you can meet the singers, and that’ll be fun. There’s not an opportunity to do that at every venue. You’re going to have the stars of everything be in one show and meet them.
ALIVE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CW: It was just really hard for me to see my father—he was denied treatment at one point because they didn’t think they could do anything for him. And I wasn’t there when he died, and it’s really hard for me to accept that. So this is my way of honoring him.