An Empress's Old/New Message

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An Empress's Old/New Message

Like many other brilliant women of her time more than a century ago, Queen Min remained the "invisible other" to her husband, King Gojong. When global imperialism and modernization were just about to sweep over Korea, the queen demanded that her husband sign a commerce treaty with Japan. She urged Chosun to "adopt the influences of foreign culture while giving ours first priority."

Queen Min opened the doors of the Hermit Kingdom to foreign merchants and diplomats, but was later blamed as the harbinger of all reforms. Foreigners and her own people often criticized her for "presumptuously taking her husband's place."

This is the main theme of the latest version of the first Korean original musical "The Last Empress," originally titled "Myeongseong Hwanghu." Queen Min is the Korean version of Evita Peron, whom many regard as the mother of Argentina.

The story begins with a huge video projection of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945. The image reminds us of Japan's surrender in World War II and Korea' liberation after decades of Japanese occupation. Then we are live and back in 1864. Prince Kojong, 12, marries the brilliant but humble Min Ja-young as China and Japan prepare to take over the Chosun Dynasty. In 1894, the Sino-Japanese war breaks out and Gojong and Min secretly pledge to ask France, Germany and Russia to help restore full autonomy. Japan, with plans to take over all of Asia, organizes "Operation Fox Hunt" to execute Queen Min. In 1895, she dies at the hands of a Japanese samurai.

Created in 1991, the musical has been revived a handful of times. Despite the economic downturn now, the opening night at the Opera House in the Seoul Arts Center was packed. After receiving favorable reviews in New York and Los Angeles, "The Last Empress" has come back home.

And the show has things to say to Koreans suffering from the economic downturn. The patriotic theme is a reminder that reform is possible, and it encourages us to look at where we are now. When the ghost of Queen Min goes down in her knees in the last scene, urging the people "to rise against all perils ahead" and to "pledge to defend the nation together," the classic form of Korean nationalism is brought home, and some of the audience were moved to tears.

The chorus "Rise, People of Chosun," the show's highlight, is just what Koreans may want to hear at the moment. There was a similar reaction when the musical was staged in Seoul four years ago, when Korea had just entered the "IMF Period." The stage set and lighting for this production are not as compelling as those in 1996, but still evocative. The video projections of World War II footage and the battle scenes make this $10 million musical a genuine spectacle.

The show also belongs to Lee Tae-won as Queen Min. Ms. Lee, 32, also played the role on Broadway. Her exquisite voice allows the audience to put aside the frequent xenophobic statements and some disturbing racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, "The Last Empress" is worth spending at least 20,000 won ($16) on a ticket to those who likes to hear great music and see elaborate costumes. But be warned. The show is two-and-a-half hours long, so you better have a strong neck if you want to look at the English subtitles hung near the ceiling.

The show runs through Jan. 18. For ticket information, phone 02-417-6272.

by Park Soo-mee

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