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[Herald Interview] 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' countertenors aim to win over Verdi, Puccini, Wagner fans

By Park Ga-young

Published : April 8, 2024 - 16:57

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James Laing (left) and Jang Jung-kwon rehearse for the Korea National Opera's production of James Laing (left) and Jang Jung-kwon rehearse for the Korea National Opera's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (KNO)

When "A Midsummer Night's Dream," an opera adapted by Benjamin Britten, premieres in South Korea later this week in a production by the Korea National Opera, it will represent two rarities here. An opera with a libretto from William Shakespeare's play of the same title, it will stand out as a rare English-language opera in a country where the works of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini are beloved. Additionally, the opera is one of very few to include countertenors in the leading roles.

The KNO’s production features countertenors James Laing and Jang Jung-kwon in the role of Oberon, the fair king. Taking the same roles, each singer offers an Oberon with a distinctive voice and experience.

Laing, hailing from the UK, is no stranger to the role. The KNO production will mark his eighth time as Oberon, while Jang, who returned to Korea in 2021 after working mostly in Europe, takes on the role for the first time.

“(Laing’s) understanding of the music and the role of Oberon in this work is perfect, allowing him to act and sing naturally and beautifully. I am learning a lot from him,” Jang said in an interview last week.

Having premiered in 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festival in England, the story revolves around the adventures of four young lovers, a group of amateur actors and a troupe of fairies, including Oberon, Titania and Puck, who inhabit a magical forest outside Athens, Greece. Puck, Oberon's mischievous servant, disrupts the night with a love potion.

"This is my eighth time, but I find there's always something to learn," Laing noted.

"I am delighted to participate in the full-scale performance of this challenging work, which any countertenor would aspire to be part of," Jang added.

The two countertenors hoped, in unison, to appeal to Korean opera fans familiar with more popular Italian and German operas.

“Korea loves Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, and there is limited opportunity for contemporary music. This production will offer a fresh chance for the audience to experience a 20th-century opera,” Jang said.

Jang noted that there are limited opportunities for countertenors in South Korea, but sees growing interest and demand. “Chances are limited here but there are more and more baroque music and operas featuring countertenors,” Jang said.

Meanwhile, in the UK, “it's a tradition that's well established, and for the last 40 years the number of countertenors has grown exponentially,” Laing noted. “It feels hard in Korea, that the opportunity is less, but you have to start a tradition somewhere and hopefully people will come to ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ and fall in love with it and go ‘Oh, we want more of that,’” he added.

Laing reassured those perhaps hesitant to try something different. "There's nothing to fear. Twentieth-century music is simply music, and we're merely telling a story, one that hopefully brings laughter and engagement," he said.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" will be performed at the Opera House of the Seoul Arts Center From Thursday to Sunday. The performance on Saturday will be livestreamed via the KNO's livestreaming platform, myOpera Live, and on Naver TV.