Culture in Korea comes at huge cost

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Culture in Korea comes at huge cost

How much is culture worth? In Korea, quite a lot, especially when it involves foreign performers.
For example, when the Vienna Philharmonic, led by renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, played at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in February, many classical music fans in Korea were surprised to find that three-fourths of the seats cost at least 250,000 won ($214).
Normally, event organizers, who set the price, divide the seats evenly through price ranges. But according to Sejong, the organizers for the Vienna Philharmonic designated about 1,560 seats out of the main hall’s 3,280 as the most expensive, at 350,000 won. One-third, or 964, cost 250,000 won. The remaining seats, about 25 percent of Sejong’s capacity, were 30,000 won to 90,000 won.
Granted, it was one of the year’s most anticipated concerts, but the cost of some seats on the balcony and floor at Sejong was about 50,000 won more than a performance by the same orchestra, led by Zubin Mehta, at the Seoul Arts Center last year, which has a capacity of 2,600.
The Vienna Philharmonic concert isn’t an aberration. For the La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra in September, organized by PMG Korea, tickets start at 50,000 won, jumping to 80,000, 120,000, 180,000, 240,000 and 300,000 won.
Organizers say that the rise in ticket prices for big-name classical concerts and operas is a result of increased production expenses. Indeed, “stadium operas,” which have been popular among concert promoters in recent years, have pushed up ticket prices dramatically compared to past years.
“Turandot,” an arena opera that starred celebrity opera singers from Italy at the Sangam World Cup Stadium last year, charged 150,000 won for medium-range seats, with a special VIP package, which included a hotel dinner, for 500,000 won. Italian operas held in previous years here charged no more than 100,000 or 150,000 won on average.
Ticket inflation has affected other cultural events as well. Pop singer Elton John will hold his first concert in Seoul in September, and tickets start at 50,000 won, jumping to 150,000, 200,000 and up to 300,000 won at Jamsil Olympic Stadium. “Swan Lake,” performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in May at Sejong Center, cost 200,000 won for some seats on the floor and balcony.
Korea’s ticket prices are higher than that of other countries, even if the same troupes are performing.
According to a British concert Web site, ticket prices for “Don Quixote,” performed by the Bolshoi Ballet at London’s Royal Opera House, ranged from 38 pounds (82,000 won) to 72 pounds (155,000 won). The average ticket for “La Boheme,” by Glyndebourne Touring Opera, is 55 pounds (117,000 won).
Metropolis Tokyo, a Web site listing events in Tokyo, shows that “Swan Lake” by the St. Petersburg Ballet Company cost 6,000 yen (64,000 won) to 14,000 yen (148,000 won).
On Tokyo Opera City’s Web site, a Moscow Russian Philharmonic concert, led by Alexander Vedernikov, cost 4,000 yen (42,000 won) to 10,000 yen (106,000 won) for the best seats. It’s a far cry from what it cost to see the Warsaw Philharmonic in Seoul last month, a troupe on par with the Moscow Russian Philharmonic in name recognition. The organizers priced mid-range seats at 80,000 won and some floor seats at 150,000 won.
In Berlin, where theaters are partly subsidized by the government, shows by major symphony orchestras can be enjoyed for as little as 25 or 30 euros (43,000 won). The best seats for a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Riccardo Muti, last month at the Berliner Phiharmoniker, were 83 euros (118,000 won).

Lack of funding cited
Concert organizers in Korea blame the lack of both government funding and corporate sponsors for the high ticket prices. They say the only way to compensate the artists’ guaranteed fee and their traveling expenses is by making the customers pay.
Ahn Young-mi, a spokeswoman for Kumho Foundation, a non-profit organization that is bringing the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel to Seoul in October, agrees that the cost of seeing such big-name performances is too high. She says organizers can break even if they sell only 50 percent of the seats by maximizing ticket prices and getting sufficient funding from corporate sponsors.
“In big concerts, a significant portion of seats go to corporate sponsors and VIP guests anyway,” Ms. Ahn says. “So by boosting the ticket price, they can secure more money with less of an audience and make a good impression on corporate donors by giving them expensive tickets.” One organizer said an average of 30 to 40 percent of seats at concerts are given away to corporate sponsors and government employees.
Seo Sang-hee, a representative of Mast Media, an organizer for classical music concerts, says the actual number of customers who buy their own tickets to see a concert is very small in Korea.
“In the industry, it’s considered foolish to try to make profits from concerts through normal ticket sales without securing proper funding from corporations,” she says.
The major problem, many organizers claim, is that even if they did lower prices, there isn’t enough of an audience that is willing to pay to see big-name performers.
Jung Jae-wal, a theater critic and a general manager of LG Yonam Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds LG Arts Center in Gangnam, says it’s also problematic that a majority of the Korean audience lacks knowledge in choosing cultural events that suit their taste, allowing some concert promoters to sway them with giant-scale productions and big-name celebrities.
“Instead of reaching a broad range of people, these promoters specifically target those who can afford to pay for pricey tickets,” he says. “In return, the organizers offer their clients a sense of privilege about their cultural position. The public won’t go see an opera just because it’s cheap.”
Lee Yong-gwan, an adviser to the Bucheon Cultural Foundation, confirms this, saying that even though locally-produced shows are much cheaper, venues are far from full.
For example, tickets for tonight’s concert by KBS Philharmonic, led by Kwak Sung and starring cellist Song Young-Hoon, start at 8,000 won at the Seoul Arts Center’s concert hall, going up to 35,000 won. “Don Giovanni” at Bucheon Citizen’s Center charged 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 won for its tickets.
Mr. Lee says homegrown shows are much cheaper because Koreans expect it. “Local troupes should be able to charge more for their own dignity,” he says. “Some shows are expensive and still manage to pack the theater. Others are cheaper, but the theater is still empty. So the real issue is that the audience needs to develop a taste for quality shows.”
Mr. Jung notes that some of the seats that sell out first at major concerts are the most expensive ones. Such a phenomenon, he says, is related to an increasing class gap in Korean society.
“In a sense we are creating a wider split between people who can afford to pay for these shows and those who can’t,” he says. “For those who can’t, there is an obvious sense of alienation. But for those who can, cost is not an issue.”
Jeff Kim, a spokesman for the JoongAng Ilbo’s cultural events organization, agrees, saying some promoters deliberately bill their shows as “luxury performances” to attract those who see artistic value as a commodity.

Quality vs. price
However, higher prices don’t always guarantee higher-quality performances. Despite an impressive stage set shipped from Beijing and production by Zhang Yimou, “Turandot” received mediocre reviews from critics and spectators for the poor sound system and great gap between the stage and the audience. “Aida,” an opera put on by CnA Korea that cost 200,000 won for mid-range seats, also received bad reviews.
Some of the venues with the highest ticket prices receive public money, raising questions about whether events there should be so expensive. Mr. Lee says it’s unethical for publicly-funded theaters to charge or even to co-host high-priced concerts with performance organizers.
Last year, Sejong Center received 33 billion won from the Seoul metropolitan government, and Seoul Arts Center got 5.7 billion from Seoul and 3 billion won in other public funding.
“There is only a certain amount of power we have over shows that have been organized by companies we rent our space to,” says Kim Dong-wan, chief of budget planning for Sejong at the cultural affairs division of the Seoul metropolitan government. “We can’t force the organizers to price or arrange seats in certain ways except in some extreme cases.”
Mr. Kim says there have been several discussions among city officials about whether it’s ethical for Sejong to charge more than private theaters. He says the government will push Sejong to stage more shows by city-funded troupes starting next year instead of inviting organizers to bring in expensive shows from abroad that a majority of Korean citizens can’t afford to see.
“The whole point of these big shows this year was to show that the new Sejong can accommodate these international-scale troupes,” he says.
With overseas shows, such as the recent Broadway musical “Cabaret,” Sejong has proved it can handle the headline acts as well as anyone. Now the question is whether Sejong, and other major venues in Seoul, can make culture more affordable to more people.

by Park Soo-mee
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