[ON STAGE]An opera that sings to tourists

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[ON STAGE]An opera that sings to tourists

A tourist content with skimming the surface of Korea may see Insa-dong as an area rich with tradition and culture. The street and its adjacent alleys, full of quaint teashops and souvenir stands, have attracted tourists for decades. Foreigners can easily find seemingly authentic food, art and fortune-tellers.

But some critics belittle Insa-dong, saying it lacks culture and tradition. They say it is more a vendor of culture than a producer, and that it does nothing to keep up with the times. Indeed, most younger Koreans see Insa-dong as the most alien part of Seoul.

Seoul city officials probably had these concerns in mind when they coordinated the cultural events to coincide with this summer's World Cup soccer games. Accordingly, a new theatrical work opened in Insa-dong last week which features the Korean opera style called changgeuk. "The Story of Oh Youran" is described by the production company as a romantic comedy.

The opera caters to tourists by providing English, Chinese and Japanese subtitles. The orchestra also provides a good overview of traditional instruments, with its drums, flutes and the gayageum (12-string zither).

The story line of the opera has been simplified to give it more universal appeal. It follows a series of deceptions set off by a local governor's plan to cheer up his best friend. The governor pressures an alluring gisaeng, or female entertainer, Youran, to seduce his friend Yisaeng. As the play proceeds, Yisaeng is duped by the scheme and falls in love. One day, he returns from a trip to Hanyang and is told that Youran killed herself because she thought Yisaeng had left her for good. He sobs in front of her supposed grave, but later finds out that it was all a big prank.

Unfortunately, the story is mostly uninspiring. To make matters worse, the pansori artists, or traditional solo opera singers, need more acting lessons, and the set, designed to resemble an oriental painting, is clumsy. You get the impression that the production was thrown together for tourists seeking plays with English subtitles - the only thing this play successfully delivers.

To be fair, though, the costumes are dazzling and the theater is cozy. If you've never seen traditional Korean opera, you may enjoy this work. But don't expect a masterpiece. It's just another part of the whole Insa-dong package. For more information, call 02-732-5504.

by Park Soo-mee

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