<the October issue of Culture-Space magazine published by Sejong Center>
Violetta: the beloved woman by Koreans
– The Korean reception of La Traviata
Seung-Hee Lee (music columnist)
“We have watched this opera on the screen and managed to listen to records. Though Korean could not have the honor to see this opera as well as others, we now finally can see La Traviata in Korean at Seoul Municipal Building January 16, 1948, which had successful premieres about one hundred years ago in Italy, thanks to the effort of Lee, In-Sun and his friends. The premiere is long overdue, but our gladness of seeing this opera for the first time is ineffable. Thus, a big crowd was gathered in front of the house as if not only theatergoers and music lovers but also all citizens in all Korea came here demonstrated this opera was sensational.”
This article released some day in January 1948 reported the popularity of the Korean premiere of La Traviata in excited tones. People from across the nation filled the building, and the box office was crowded with people who wanted to buy tickets at all rates though the tickets already sold out. It shows the opera was sensational that Tenor Lee In-Sun, who staged the premiere of the opera and one of title roles, Alfredo, was taken into police custody since he had a fight against a reporter who broke a scandal.
At first glance, the successful premiere of La Traviata in Korea would seem to be an absurd story. It had been only three years after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule. There were even no theaters to stage performances including opera. Since opera performed about two times in Japanese colonial era reportedly were for Japanese, there seemed no Korean who could see opera. Then how the opera gained the popularity with the audience from the first? The answer is simple. Korean people already learned opera via mass media such as newspaper and radio. Especially, La Traviata, adapted for movie and play, was relatively a familiar to Korean. Koreans never experienced opera notwithstanding, La Traviata was not alien to people. Moreover, opera was one of the cultural heritages made by the modernized Western whereby Koreans regarded it as the object of admiration as well as the hurdle, which Koreans must pass over someday. Thus, the reviews of the opera had mixed emotions of the overflowing joy, ‘we did it,’ and regrets, ‘it was clumsy as expected.’
From the premiere to the present, why La Traviata has been the most favored opera in Korea? The first form of the western music to the Koreans was church hymns, which has the simple musical structure. But the familiar structure cannot explain the reason because it is the trait many operas have in common. Mellifluous pieces of music in the opera cannot be an answer, either. The decisive factor is its plot.
This opera has the narrative structure loved by many Koreans. There were many stories in popular culture in the mid-twentieth century Korea that a woman cannot realize her even little desire, the fruition of love, due to the reason such as her illness or poverty. This means Lee In-Sun, the founder of KukJe Opera Company who chose La Traviata as the Korea’s first opera, had good business acumen. As he was not an astute impresario, he could not, of course, make a hefty profit. He had to sell his house and piano off because the ticket management system was not efficient at that time.
Violetta’s Sorrow moved Koreans to tears
Unlike the high popularity of La Traviata in Korea, it could not gain popularity well in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many Western countries. It was strange to the audience in these countries that the honorable prostitute decided her destiny and kept her gravity. They could not readily understand the opera which requires the audience to sympathize her situation. Her sad fate was the result of paying for her sin. Accordingly, La Traviata had to change its plot to the story one hundred years ago at the Italian premiere due to the Catholic culture, though Verdi wished to make it the contemporary setting. Italians thought it cannot happen in their own world now. In the United States, a Christian country, opera directors could make the audience cry only after they inserted ethical words for Violetta’s script or changed her job from a prostitute to a temptress.
There were seldom resistances of the audience in Korea. The article reproached that “why did he (Lee In-Sun) select the story of a prostitute as the first opera performance in Korea?” was quickly buried in oblivion. The unfortunate love story of the prostitute suffering from consumption was not an encumbrance to success. The tragic heroine was a sine qua non of the popularity. Thus, it is not a coincidence that La Traviata stands at the top of the list of the most frequently performed opera and followed by La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. Mimi dies from the disease after distressed by the jealous lover in La Boheme, Tosca ends her life by leaping from the roof of the prison in Tosca, Cio-Cio-san commit suicide by her lover’s betrayal in Madama Butterfly, and Santuzza tries to repair the relationship with her lover but has to experience his death in Cavalleria Rusticana. They all are the heroines of the tragedy.
From 1948 to the present, Violetta has been the cuddly woman to the Korean opera audience. The Korean audience did not regard her job as a sin and stigmatized her as an imprudent woman after the premiere of the opera in 1948. Why is there the difference between Korea and other western countries?
Lee In-Young(1929-), the former main singer of Husiwara Opera in Japan and the main singer as well as the opera director in Korea, seems to know the answer. Koreans who had the days of suffering caused by the Japanese colonial era and the Korean War felt great empathy for her. Having the multitude of the audience, he might have the modicum of truth. The Korean audience experienced the nadir of sadness as much as she did whereby understanding the sorrow.