Memo: A Crumpled Paper (2)

Migration of the Canon


What is the singularity of the Korean reception of La Traviata?

I have presumed there was a great preference for La Traviata in Korea, but not in the West.

But recently I found it was a false assumption.

Like in Korea, La Traviata is, indubitably, a popular work in the West.

Otherwise, this work would not have been known in Korea.

A popular opera in the West can be popular in Korea, but if it is not popular enough in the West, it will not win popularity from the Korean audience even if it has a lot of elements that attract it.

In other words, in order to gain popularity in Korea, it must win renown as a well-made work (=canon) already in the West, and it should be suitable for the taste of the Korean audience. Works that do not have both of these elements cannot receive attention from the Korean audience. Even if one of the two elements is missing, it is not easy to appeal to the Korean audience’s taste.

Then, is there any difference between the popularity of La Traviata in the West and Korea? There it is. It is the one that looks small at first glance, but critical.

The popularity of La Traviata in the West is not as ‘unparalleled’ as Korea.


Why does La Traviata stand unchallenged in Korea?

I explained the reason through the indigenous sentiments of Koreans in my master ‘s thesis, but this can also be explained in terms of the migration of ‘canon.’

When western “canons” come in cultures of a totally different context from those of the West, they do not propagate without deformation of the original inherent features, as are the many goods delivered through UPS.

There are small doors between different cultures whereby canons must pass through to enter other different cultures.

But the door is smaller than the size of the canon, so it goes into the other culture without distortion.

Again, let us remind of ‘a scratch paper.’

But this time, suppose there are many papers.

Multiple pieces of scratch paper cannot pass through a small door at one time.

Therefore, a few pieces of paper at most pass through the door at a time.

However, there is a rule in the order when the western canons go into the other culture. I would call the standards for the order, “the law of the success of opera in Korea” and classify it as factor A and factor B.


Factor A) The most famous thing in the West

Factor B) The best fit for Koreans’ emotions.

The stronger both of these factors, the faster the sequence is.

But even if a canon has two elements together, if they are not strong enough, the order lags behind. If one is missing, the order is slower. Operas composed by Wagner have rarely been performed in Korea. In the year of Wagner and Verdi’s 100th anniversary in 2013, his works were performed 5% at best compared to the performances of Verdi’s operas that year. Wagner’s works lack factor B.

The strong combination of the two factors represents the reason why La Traviata has been the most popular opera in Korea. No other work has shown this potent combination.

Then, let me explain the decreasing trend of the unprecedented popularity of La Traviata in Korea using ‘the law of success.’


First, ‘the law of success of opera in Korea’ is changing continuously. In particular, the change in factor B is crucial.

Since the criterion of ‘canon’ does not change easily, the variation of factor A is also small.

Of course, long-term changes will certainly have an impact. For example, suppose that in the West, La Traviata will be treated as an antiquated or insipid opera. Though time lag is slow, changes in reception in the West will also affect in Korea.

The geographical characteristics of the Korean peninsula have been driven historically so that people living there are forced to have cultural toadyism. Changes in taste in the West will be a major concern for Korea until the West completely loses its hegemony. Historically, for example, Chosun suffered from Byungjahoran in 1636 (병자호란, 丙子胡亂, The Second Manchu war in 1636) under the reign of King Injo (仁祖, 1595-1649; reigned, 1623-1649), the 16th king of the Joseon Dynasty, because it did not serve the Qing dynasty, which emerged as a new stronghold in the Greater China. The power of the Ming Dynasty had already weakened, but Chosun still regarded the Qing Dynasty as a barbarian. Although Byungjahoran is still remembered as a national shame for Koreans, the experience of the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War has desperately influenced the Korean people not to be flexible in coping with changes in the world power structure.

The variation in factor B is much larger than the first factor. It is because the taste of Koreans changes more rapidly than the standard of ‘canon.’ As I noted in my master’s thesis, the early reception of La Traviata was strongly influenced by the preference for suggestive melodrama (Sin-pa), which was prevalent in the mid-20th century. And the preference for such drama still appears in various cultural contents of Korea including television drama and movie made in Korea. (This feature is especially evident when comparing the overall difference between American and Korean dramas. While American dramas tend not try to make listeners shed tears, Korean drama is tear-jerking as it necessarily includes emotional factors such as the main character’s mourn fate and the hopeless love of characters. Nevertheless, the preference for such drama has declined over the past few decades. (I guess this also demonstrates that Koreans slowly free them from the trauma of the Japanese War and the Korean War.) This has had a significant impact on changes in the reception of opera in Korea so far.

Second, this is because the world of opera in Korea and the Korean audiences have steadily spread the crumpled papers that came in through small doors. Initially, only the tiny number of papers is received through the small door, and it takes time to spread the wrinkles (distortions). In this environment, selection and concentration strategies are the most efficient way to strengthen competencies and are inevitable conditions. Therefore, at first, Koreans concentrated on only a few works that fit “the law of the success of opera in Korea,” and develop their understanding and gain professional competency in opera. La Traviata is not only the first opera performed in Korea in 1948 but also the work, which is composed by the foreigner, that performed abroad for the first time in 2008. In this context, it is quite symbolic that the country was Italy, the epicenter of opera. (“Veni, vidi, vici”)

However, if the opera continues to perform and the understanding and capacity of a few works develop to a certain extent, there will be room for more paper. This results in a weakening of the intensive preference for La Traviata.



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