Soprano Kang Hye-jung, center, sings the part of Dosil, the heroine of Love Letter. The production of the Seoul Metropolitan Opera (SMO) revolves around the story of Dosil and Areuk trying to overcome the obstacles that separate them. The SMO is one of the nine art troupes of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts./ Courtesy of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts
Lackluster setting, sound mar production of homegrown opera
By Do Je-hae
It's not a desirable situation in an opera performance when the accompanying orchestra outshines the singers.
But unfortunately, this was the case in homegrown opera "Love Letter" to be staged at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul from Thursday.
During a rehearsal for the press Tuesday, it was the polished sound of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) that immediately grabbed attention. Even without famed music director Chung Myun-whun at the helm, the orchestra rose to the occasion. (Chung is in Paris to conduct a performance by a group of North Korean and French musicians.)
While the nation's other major orchestra, the KBS Symphony Orchestra, is mired in a scandal involving disputes between its members and music director Hahm Shin-ik, the SPO has consistently improved under Chung.
Under his leadership, it has not only made more recordings and embarked on overseas tours but has widened its activities to accompany operas and ballets. The SPO is planning to accompany the 50th anniversary performance of the National Opera's "La Boheme" next month.
From the soft prelude to the thundering outbursts in the climatic sections of the love-themed opera, the orchestra's accompaniment was outstanding.
One of the reasons that the singers seemed somewhat inadequate may have been the venue.
The Sejeong Center is not an ideal place for staging operas because the space is simply too big. The grand theater of the Sejong Center seats more than 3,000 people and is too big for singers who do not use a microphone. Their voices, even those of the male singers, were just barely audible, even from the front row.
Consequently there was little choice but to stare at the small screen placed in each seat to follow the lyrics, in Korean and English.
Also there was the problem of a monotonous setting. The theater should have invested more in creating a variety of sets to reflect the various time changes of the storyline, which spans from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) to modern Seoul.
But what remained on the stage throughout the entire production was a traditional Korean-style building, with few changes to the lighting.
This is not to say that the opera is a complete flop. It carries significance in the nation's history of creating marketable works.
One of its best qualities is that it has a "Koreanness", giving the entire production a unique look. It includes gorgeous performances of traditional Korean fan dances and the electrifying "samulnori", a genre of traditional percussion music. The "hanbok",or traditional Korean costumes, were also magnificent.
The storyline traces the tragic, unconsummated romance between two lovers that recurs over three different periods in Korean history: a star-crossed manservant and "gisaeng" (female entertainer) during the Joseon era are reunited in the next life, only to be separated by tumultuous events of the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) and finally meeting again as fashion designers in present-day Seoul. Since its debut in 2010, it has become a representative work at the Sejong Center.
Services for non-Koreans
While Korean theater is often hard for expats to appreciate because of the glaring language gap, "Love Letter" shows Seoul making an effort to make local performances more accessible to English speakers. Tickets for the performance cost from 10,000 to 70,000 won but a 20 percent discount is available for foreigners on presentation of their passport or alien registration card. English subtitles make it easy to follow the story.
Love Letter, known as "Yeonseo" in Korean runs through March 18. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday. To reach the theater, go to Gwanghwamun Station on line 5, exit 1 or 8. The opera runs for 130 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission. For more information, visit www.sejongpac.or.kr or call (02) 399-1114.
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