Joseon love story revived as opera

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Joseon love story revived as opera

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When “Sontag Hotel” was first staged as a play at the National Theater of Korea in 1976, Cha Beom-seok wanted to tell a story depicting early Korea like “a genre painting.” The result turned out to be an unconventional tale of romance in turn-of-the-century Korea. The story is about to get a new lease on life as an opera staged by Ewha Girls’ High School, which was built on the site of the old hotel.
“Sontag Hotel” is set in the first western-style hotel built in Seoul in 1902, a few years before the Joseon Dynasty’s tragic end.
The story follows Seo Jae-pil, an independent activist and doctor from the United States, and his fight for Korean independence. He launches the Dongnip Sinmun, a paper critical of pro-Japanese politicians, but suffers pressure from opponents including King Gojong. Seo then meets Antoinette Sontag, an Australian-German, who runs a diplomats’ social club, and the two fall in love.
“At the time, I saw the story more as historical fiction,” Mr. Cha, 82, says. “But it gradually turned into a tale of romance. I assumed the two had a mutual sympathy for each other. After all, they both lived a life of alienation.”
Mr. Cha became involved with literature and drama after returning from military service in 1945. After the Korean War, he spent the next five years teaching at a middle school in his hometown in Mokpo, where he started writing, and in 1951 his first play, “Stars Come Out Every Night” was staged there.
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From then on he took a leading role as one of the most respected dramatists of Korea’s modern theater as a writer and producer, and a translator of plays from Japan. He also staged such literary works as Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” in Korean.
When “Burning Mountain” (Sanbul) was published in the late 1950s, critics raved about its sense of realism, naming it a leading sample of post-war literature that delved into the ideological struggle between the North and South.
“The political setting of the play is reminiscent of the tensions now,” Cha says. “The dilemma between progressives and conservatives will give a similar feeling to modern audiences.”


by Kim Young-hoon

“Sontag Hotel” will be performed at Hwam Hall of Ewha Girls’ High School Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m.
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