Korean opera makes a great leap

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Korean opera makes a great leap

Sometimes even the best preparations can end up going nowhere if there is a lack of opportunity. Sometimes we even fail to enjoy the advantages that we’ve been given, previous chances that have the potential to provide a turning-point in our history. But other times, opportunity and potential do come together at the right time, bringing about remarkable achievements and progress. Korean opera is an example of the latter, having made huge leaps and advancements, in large part due to The International Herald Tribune (now rebranded as the International New York Times).

That historical turning point for Korean opera can be attributed to a special report on world opera that was published on Dec. 2, 2010. The article pointed out that the great new voices in opera, instead of coming from Italy and the West, were now coming from Korea and Asia. The article was immediately seized up by a major Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo. Five days after the report, the chairman of the Korean Opera Grand Prix Organizing Committee, Lee Kun-Hee, also a former president of MBC television, introduced the article. He encouraged the presidents of Korea’s opera companies, more than 60 of whom were gathered for the Korea Opera Awards at the Press Center in Seoul, to pursue higher goals.

The report was shocking to all the presidents of those opera companies. Of course, we have always been proud of Korean singers, and they have been showing their outstanding abilities on stages all over the world. And many prestigious opera singers, including Luciano Pavarotti’s teacher Ettore Campogalliani, have predicted that Korea would become a new hub of opera thanks to Koreans’ keen interest in the genre and the superiority of their singers. However, these just seemed like individual opinions, far from anything definitive. But a year-end special report in The International Herald Tribune was a totally different story, and this made a huge impact on Koreans.

As a general secretary of the Korea Opera Company Association (KOCA), I realized at once that I was situated at the end of the older generation of Korean opera history, but at the same time at the starting point of a new generation.

While living in New York City for six years, I read The New York Times and was well aware of how prudently its articles were written and how influential they could be. So I had no doubt that the idea was based on a thorough examination and reasonable conclusion when the Times said Korea could become the future mecca of world opera.

Its report was enough to create good momentum for us, so we had to take advantage of the opportunity to make progress for Korean opera. I responded immediately by holding dozens of meetings with boards of directors and chairmen of the board to take this chance and turn it into actual progress.

As a result, KOCA organized five committees: the promotion committee for constructing the hub of world opera; the Asia-Pacific opera development council; the promotion committee for a world opera leader contest; the committee for fostering opera creation; and the promotion committee for founding a general opera academy. After three years, KOCA has completed its crucial foundation and now is moving on to actual plans.

But how do we grab this precious chance to be the real center of world opera?

The National Opera Company and several private opera companies in Korea do provide excellent operas, but they aren’t anything compared with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Compared with Italian or European opera companies, too, our best wouldn’t surpass any of them. But then again, The New York Times, whose office is located just 20 blocks from the Metropolitan Opera, reported that the center of world opera could shift from Italy to Korea, without even mentioning a hint of New York.

Ever since, I reread the IHT again and again for three straight years. And finally I started to see the basis for the IHT’s claims about Korean opera. And here was my conclusion: What the IHT meant about transforming Korea into a world opera hub wasn’t about establishing the best opera companies compared to those in Europe or the Metropolitan Opera. That just isn’t possible any time soon. Italy is no doubt the central nation for opera, no matter what.

What really mattered are private Korean opera companies, especially those in small or midsize cities or provincial ones. Those companies number more than 120 in Korea, which is more than the sum of worldwide private professional opera companies. Big or small, they are performing all around Korea. Even in small cities like Andong and Gumi, in North Gyeongsang, or Yeosu, in South Jeolla, towns with more or less 100,000 people, companies put on, not only well-known operas like “Carmen” or “La Traviata,” but also their own creations, original operas with stories suited to each region.

The reason for Italy being the mecca of opera can be understood in the same context. Italy has theaters for opera performances even in the smallest cities and the suburbs, and every single Italian has access to opera performances. I have a lot more details in the thesis I wrote for my diploma at Seoul National University’s Science and Policy Advanced Research Course last August.

For three years, after such efforts to mirror ourselves through the eyes of the IHT, Korean opera has undergone a surprisingly dramatic transition in its development. The ultimate goals for the next century have also been renewed. Extending the reach of opera to 3.9 billion people in 47 Asian countries is one of those goals. Could anything be more astonishing?

Korea might have been well-prepared to make this huge leap and progress in opera anyway. But if it had not been for the IHT report three years ago, no one would have been able to say when the right moment was for this marvelous transition. Still, there are so many cases where long-time endeavors fail to blossom due to a lack of opportunity. Cases where well-prepared meets the right moment and gives birth to marvelous output are extremely rare. In this respect, the NYT report was a hugely lucky and priceless asset for Korean opera.

Once we finally reach the day when Korea officially becomes the mecca of world opera, we should never forget that the success was built upon the invaluable advice from the Times three years ago.

*The author is secretary general of the Korea Opera Company Association.

by Choi Seung-u
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