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Original shows turn the page for opera

New local opera productions hope to resonate with wider audience

Opera is often considered far-off from reality -- featuring aristocrats, princesses and talking animals. But the Korean opera scene is striving to produce original shows that resonate with a wider audience.

Usually written in German or Italian, operas can be difficult to understand, even with translated lyrics, as they often feature stories that premiered in the 1700s and 1800s.

However, more opera productions are tackling contemporary topics these days. Original productions written in Korean are more accessible to audience members who are new to the genre. 

(Korea National Opera)
(Korea National Opera)

With the success of patriotic original opera “1945” last year, the Korea National Opera presents two original operas this season, “Red Pants” and “Red Shoes.”

Comedy opera “Red Pants” is heavy on sarcasm, depicting the real estate development of the Gangnam area, an affluent neighborhood in southern Seoul, in the 1970s and 1980s. The national troupe says Koreans will find it easy to understand and relatable, as the real estate bubble still exists today.

The opera was to be staged at the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul on March 27 and 28, but it has been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In September, the troupe will present “Red Shoes,” a reinterpretation of the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson. The story will be adapted to a modern setting, stressing how society tries to oppress the desires and personalities of individuals.

Two original opera productions, “The Death of Mr. Kim” and “The Crow,” were introduced earlier this month at the Sejong Center in central Seoul. They had received support from the 2019 Arko Selection, a performing arts program funded by the Art Council Korea under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. 

Opera “The Death of Mr. Kim” by Opera Bank (Arko)
Opera “The Death of Mr. Kim” by Opera Bank (Arko)

“The Death of Mr. Kim,” based on Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” revolves around a character named Kim Yeong-ho, a successful salaryman in his 50s. One day, Kim falls ill from an unnamed disease that slowly consumes him. From that point, Kim looks back on his empty life.

“Writing a modern opera piece, I thought a lot about the tone of the lyrics. It is a black comedy, so the tone should be comfortable and easy to follow,” composer Oh Ye-seung said at a press event for the premiere of the show in January.

In the opera, actors dress in modern suits, depicting everyday salarymen. Kim calls himself an Automated Teller Machine, an expression often used in Korea to describe fathers who do nothing but make money for their families. 

Opera “The Crow” by La Bella Opera (Arko)
Opera “The Crow” by La Bella Opera (Arko)

“The Crow” centers on an ordinary family destroyed by the 1997 financial crisis, highlighting how scars remain from the incident. The family plans a group suicide and abandons the youngest son at an amusement park. The plan fails, and years later, the son returns to the family, sparking conflict.

Tenor Kim Ji-min who played the role of the youngest son in the opera said, “When studying, I usually study the characters that have been portrayed by other singers. But with the original production, there was the joy in building up my own character.

“The language difference is huge. Even after translation, it is sometimes hard to understand lyrics 100 percent due to cultural differences. But an original show is written by a Korean, so it is easy to get the context.”

By Im Eun-byel (