One man’s mission to save the classics: Baritone Claudio Jung aims to ensure gagok, opera and ballet are revered as high art

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One man’s mission to save the classics: Baritone Claudio Jung aims to ensure gagok, opera and ballet are revered as high art


Claudio Jung, who is also known as Jung Kyoung, is the director of the research institute Operama. [OPERAMA]

It was Friday evening, a week before Christmas. As the clock approached 8 p.m., the seats began to fill up quickly in one of the theaters of Cheongdam CGV in southern Seoul. A full cinema is not an odd scene at a movie theater on a Friday evening, especially during a holiday season, but this was not a screening for a box-office hit. Instead, it was a so-called Talk Concert - a combination of a talk show and a music concert - to introduce Korea’s traditional classics known as gagok (original Korean lyric vocal music).

To older generations of Koreans, gagok is a genre of music that contains the feeling of han (the cultural emotion that mixes the regrets, frustrations, sorrows and grudges that come from internal and external discords of the country), while many young people consider it to be nothing more than old and uninteresting music. But Claudio Jung, the director of Operama, an art management research center that operates various programs that act as a platform to bring performing arts such as opera, gagok, ballet and classical music to the general public, managed to make the audience members young and old present that Friday evening laugh and cry for the entire 90-minute show.

“What I showed you today at this concert is merely an introduction to Korea’s gagok,” Jung told the audience at the end of the show. “If you’re interested in gagok and if you want to see a real performance, please go and buy tickets to see Korea’s top-notch sori [traditional narrative singing] singers and watch their shows.”

Jung makes this plea at the end of all the programs offered by Operama. Jung has personally presented five events with Operama, including the gagok concert, the organization’s latest program, titled “Letters to Korean Gagok.”

Other Talk Concert programs include “Golden Voice,” which is intended to educate middle and high school students about opera at their schools; “A Kiss with a Mad Composer,” which introduces great European composers every month at a theater in Daehangno, central Seoul; “Before you attend to the Opera,” a business-to-business program that briefly and humorously introduces opera to people before they attend a performance; and finally a more religious program that talks about opera and religion at churches.

After realizing that his “mission in life” as an opera singer was not performing at La Scala in Milan but at smaller venues like cinemas, musical theaters or lecture halls, Jung decided to establish Operama in 2010 and stand before audiences as a presenter, or in his words, “a clown,” to “market this high-class genre of arts to people who have become more and more indifferent to classical arts.”

Jung says that the classics are a “high-class genre” because he does not want to be misunderstood as a person trying to “popularize the classics.”

“Classical arts should not be popularized,” said Jung. “It should still be regarded as high culture that is somewhat difficult to understand. Only those who are willing to use their time and money on it should recognize the value, be amazed, moved and touched by it.”

He says that “Italian operas or German operas by great composers should never be downgraded for the general public so that they can better understand the works. The tickets should not be offered for free so that anyone can go without showing respect to the composer or the work they will be watching. The performances should still be high quality. What we have to do is market these works at the level [they deserve] so that audiences are ready to accept and enjoy such high-quality works.”

To learn more about Operama and how Jung established the center, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with him for an interview.

The following are edited excerpts from the discussion.


Jung introduces five different types of presentations offered by Operama during a “Talk Concert” event held recently on the topic of Korean gagok, or the original lyric vocal music of Korea, at the Chungdam CGV in southern Seoul. [OPERAMA]

Q. Operama is able to offer focused programs, like introducing an opera to a certain group of people before they go to watch it. You started off with just one program but have since expanded. What does your programming provide?

. I think the classical arts should learn from popular culture, at least in terms of marketing. The target audience of classical arts is so banal. For example, when you look at BTS, the fandom is exact, and I think we need that kind of fandom in the classical world. Therefore, I wanted to take the classics to more popular venues like Daehagno and Cheongdam CGV. It was a bit unconventional back then, but I think I was able to attract public attention. As I got to talk more and more about opera, I found the need to narrow it down and focus on creating content for specific age groups. The CEO of the Seoul Arts Center, Yoo In-taek, once said in an interview that only 1 percent of its opera tickets are sold and the rest are invitations. That number is 50 percent for musicals. That’s just sad. It means that the classical arts industry in Korea has collapsed. It’s dead. But when people come to one of our programs, they realize that opera or gagok isn’t as difficult as they imagined. Then they go on to other programs and realize the value of it. Ultimately, we go back to the issue of Korea’s education. Since Korean SATs do not require students to study the arts as much as the other subjects, they neglect it in their teens. Then, when those students become old enough that they can afford to buy tickets for classical performances, they don’t have much knowledge about how to enjoy it. That is exactly why I started Operama: to start educating the people to enjoy this high culture.

Since you are a baritone who has even performed solo at Carnegie Hall and the Seoul Arts Center, one would assume that you would like to be in the spotlight instead of running a platform like Operama. Is that true?

Somebody has to walk the walk. And I think that is me. Every time I stand on stage, I feel that I’m so distant from the audience. When I hold Talk Concerts at smaller venues and talk about the beauty and the charm of operas, I can interact so much more with the audience and receive so much more energy. I can respond to them immediately. Don’t get me wrong, I do not disregard the great singers who perform at those large halls. That’s where they should stand, and these smaller venues is where I should stand. Everyone has their own roles, and I respect them and I think I should also be respected. I’m trying everything I can to save the classical arts from drowning in this country, from losing audiences and from popular culture taking over the entire cultural world.

Why do you think your concerts nearly sell out every time they are held?

Well, I think it’s because I let myself go when I am on stage. When you look at opera singers, the so-called mainstream singers have all graduated from art schools, studied abroad and got lessons from world-renowned teachers. But that’s not my case. I hated studying so much that I barely made it through high school. I thought I was talented enough in sales that I didn’t want to pursue any further education after high school because I made good money selling sweet potatoes during the winter and helping out at farms during summer. But my mother begged me to apply for the Department of Vocal Music after learning that one of the universities in Korea did not consider academic records when accepting students. That’s how I ended up majoring in vocal music and becoming a baritone. My story resonates with many teenagers. I’m not mainstream. I didn’t go to Juilliard, and I didn’t take expensive lessons with high-profile teachers. I make fun of myself, and I say that most of the people in the audience are probably better than I was when I was in high school, which is true. After I introduce myself to students, I introduce them to “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart. I explain to them why this great Italian composer would make a servant barber named Figaro the protagonist of his opera. At that time, the barber of Seville, like Figaro, was a messenger between lovers, and he would deliver love letters between men and women. Although he had a humble occupation that others may look down upon, he had a purpose in life. Then I talk to high school teenagers about their future and tell them that they may not get into the universities they want to, but they can still have a goal in life and live a life that is worthwhile, like myself and like Figaro.

Since you did not take expensive lessons like most other classical musicians in Korea, what do you think of the music education in Korea? Do you think it contributes to the lack of tickets sold to classical performances in Korea?

Did you know that since Korea gained its independence 70 years ago, the country’s arts education has not changed? Universities in Korea only train classical music students to be solo artists - the performers in the spotlight. But only a few of them can make it to that level. We have to foster students who are good at producing, who are good at directing, who are good at staging and those who are good at performing as well. But at Korean universities, the only goal is to be a performer. That is why those who cannot make it suffer. What I do at Operama isn’t taught in schools. But thankfully, I found my talent, and I found my path. I think more artists should be fostered to become marketers of classical arts. They should learn how to appeal to the public in their language and ensure that quality culture does not disappear in Korea.

What you do may be met with resistance from older opera singers, since you describe yourself as a clown and you make fun of some operas. Do you worry about that?

When I talk about “La boheme” during the business-to-business program that introduces operas to people before they go to watch it, I honestly tell them that they should pay attention to certain parts but they can actually fall asleep during Act III. I think that is realistic advice. But no one who is an opera singer would say such a thing. I think they’d actually hate me for it. But I think I’m being realistic. The reason why this company has asked me to speak to this audience is because their employees often fall asleep through “La boheme” even though the company has purchased expensive tickets for them. My role, I believe, is to explain it in layman’s terms, to make it more interesting and let them enjoy it at their own level. If they enjoyed the show during their first experience, even if they fell asleep during the third act, maybe the second or third time they watch it, they’ll be able to enjoy the whole thing. I don’t care if other artists criticize me. What I do care about is seeing that my programs literally act as a bridge and make people actually go out to buy tickets and watch the classics.


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