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Opera to bring 1,100-year-old tale to life in today’s Apgujeong

‘Tcheo Yong’ very traditional, yet very avant-garde

By Korea Herald

Published : May 22, 2013 - 20:32

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According to hyangga, or folk songs from the Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57-A.D. 935), Cheo Yong was a man who came from nowhere and married a Silla woman. One day, when he returned home at night, he found “four legs” in his bed, obvious proof of his wife’s infidelity.

But instead of becoming infuriated, he sang a song and stepped back. The wife’s lover, described as the god of misfortune, later apologized and promised never to return, praising Cheo Yong’s generosity.

In 1987, dramatist Kim Eui-kyoung and composer Lee Young-jo interpreted Cheo Yong as Korea’s Prometheus, struggling against the evil of humankind only to fail due to men’s selfishness. They gave a little twist in the end and made Silla come to an end, which is closer to real history. 
A scene from Korea National Opera’s “Tcheo Yong,” which will be stage June 8-9 at the Seoul Arts Center. (KNO) A scene from Korea National Opera’s “Tcheo Yong,” which will be stage June 8-9 at the Seoul Arts Center. (KNO)

And in 2013, the Korea National Opera is giving the 26-year-old opera “Tcheo Yong” a facelift with Cheo Yong wearing a trench coat and colorful muffler, fighting against Yeokshin, the leather-clad god of misfortune who tries to seduce Cheo Yong’s lover, Gashil, a prostitute.

In the show staged at the Seoul Arts Center on June 8-9, Silla will be reinterpreted into a Sodom and Gomorrah-inspired hedonistic kingdom, where, according to historical books, “materialism was rampant, making people change rooftiles often and play music all day long.”

“I thought of Apgujeong-dong, the fashionable and affluent district of southern Seoul. The flamboyant dress and the set with 21st century-zen inspired rooms and palaces are expected to heighten the anxiety and the Armageddon atmosphere,” said Yang Jeong-woong, the director of the show.

The new setting will perhaps fit better to the music, which was widely regarded as “too pioneering and experimental” due to its dissonant and out-of-focus melody line. “It is not an easy piece, I admit it,” said Lee, who took over the rearrangement of the score to accompany the facelift this year.

“I maximized the use of what other people perceive as ‘noise’ as well as Korean traditional instruments and melody line, too. It is very traditional Korean but at the same time, quite avant-garde. I think it fits well with the new “Tcheo Yong” being more current and dramatic,” he added.

Yang and Lee said the “renewal” was derived from the fact that even after 1,100 years, the world is still in need of a figure like Cheo Yong.

“I think we are looking at a superhero who descended to the human world and tried to save us no matter what. Though he failed, and he even had his lover cheat on him, I don’t think his deeds were unappreciated. We still remember him,” Yang said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)