Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold directed by Achim Freyer

November 17, 2018
The Opera Theater of Seoul Arts Center



The Korean reception of Wagner operas

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold has not been performed in South Korea until Achim Freyer ‘s direction for Korea.

As Wagner operas were performed very rarely in Korea, all performances so far can be introduced here.

November 14, 1979. <Tannhäuser>by Korea National Opera. Maeil Business News captured at Naver News Library
DateTitleOpera company
May 1-2,4-6 1974
 Der fliegende Holländer
방황하는
네덜란드인
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Oct. 16-18, 21-23 1976
Lohengrin
로엔그린
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Nov. 11.12-17 1979
Tannhäuser
탄호이저
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Jun. 11-13 2005
Tannhäuser
탄호이저
Seoul Metropolitan Opera
서울시오페라단
Jul. 7.1-10 2011
Siegfried
지크프리트의 검
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Oct. 10.1, 3, 5 2013
Parsifal
파르지팔
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Nov. 18, 20, 22 2015
Der fliegende Holländer
방황하는
네덜란드인
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Dec. 9-12 2015
Der fliegende Holländer
방황하는
네덜란드인
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단
Nov. 16, 18, 20 2016
Lohengrin
로엔그린
Korea National Opera
국립오페라단

One might wonder if there are only public opera companies in South Korea. The answer is no. There is an abundance of them. The table above shows how Wagner operas have not been attracting in Korea. Only public institutes who regularly receive the funding from the government could have attempted and performed Wagner operas. 


There were no Wagner opera performances back in the 1980s and 1990s. South Korea had economically developed constantly and Koreans’ purchasing power also had enormously increased at least until the Korean Financial Crisis in 1997. As the possession of Piano regarded as the symbol of the middle class, more and more households owned pianos, and such a large number of parents had their children sign up for after-school piano classes. These scenes, looking like a skyrocketing demand for the sophistication or being a cultivated people, seem to show the implicit purpose of the Bildung. Opera performances were concentrated the small number of famous Italian operas composed by the limited number of composers. Having a tiny number of paying customers, opera companies overissued free complimentary tickets. the majority of Korean people seemed to want to pretend to be cultivated people or start to understand the Bildung made by western countries.

Das Rheingold directed by Freyer is the first Wagner opera performance in South Korea not by the public institution but by the private one. Esther Lee, an outstanding soprano and Freyer’s spouse, formed an incorporated association in Korea named WorldArtOpera(월드아트오페라and has been an artistic director of this company since then. Thanks to her effort, this opera company has a prominent opera director and Korean and German opera singers who have long singing careers in European countries. 1993 tickets for the non-disabled seemed to sold out except the 290 seats which are not normally used due to the limited visibility. 

<Alice in Wonderland>

Freyer is one of the foreigners who has continuously shown his interest in Korea. He directed <Alice in Wonderland> composed by Unsuk Chin which was performed by Bavarian State Opera whose home base is the National Theatre Munich in 2007. The Korean audience remembers him as the director of <수궁가 (Suggungga: 水宮歌, Mr. Rabbit & Dragon king)> in 2011. 




The Korean version of 

Der Ring des Nibelungen



Two focuses of his Nibelungen:

‘the division of the Korean peninsula’

and ‘the opera for beginners’


Freyer announced that he would concentrate on the division of Korea and the threat of nuclear war at the press interview. One more point was added at another interview with <객석 (客席, Auditorium)>, one of the leading music magazines in Korea. 


‘분단’이라는 한국의 특수한 상황을 고려하고자 했다. 또한 한국에서 한 번도 <니벨룽의 반지>가 제작된 적이 없다는 점을 염두에 두었다. 바그너의 작품은 가사에 사용된 언어 자체가 어려워서, 독일어를 아는 사람도 이해하기 어려워한다. 하지만 이번 프로덕션에서는 매우 직관적인 연출을 선보인다. 어린아이도 쉽게 이해할 수 있을 것이다. 

I tried to consider the specific situation of ‘the division of Korean peninsula’ and keep in mind that no Korean directors have produced <Der Ring des Nibelungen> yet. There is a lot of abstruse words in the works composed by Wagner making even people who can speak German not to understand well. However, this production makes the audience intuitively understand the opera. Even children would be able to grasp this production of ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen.’- p.41 (translated by the author of this writing)



‘Wagner’s opera for beginners’ seems more emphasized among two points. The clothes and masks which shows the character’s personality and physical trait in an exaggerated way made the audience understand the opera easier.  

Unfortunately, I was not able to find symbols or metaphors that describe the situation regarding the division of the Korean peninsula. But according to the critic written by 노승림(Noh Seung Lim), “There are many metaphors that represent Nibelungen in the netherworld as the North Korea, the dictatorship, and Wotan and other gods who wrest the ring from them as capitalistic states. For instance, Alberich turns into a big snake to flaunt his power in front of Wotan in the original version, but a missile in his production.”(here) As one of the audiences of this opera, I was wondered why a missile turned out after the metamorphosis of Alberich… but now I learn from her! however, I cannot find any other metaphors except to hers… 

Ambiguous symbols could make both points, ‘the division of the Korean peninsula’ and ‘easy opera,’ emasculated. Freyer’s symbols could cause the difficulty to the Korean audience who watched <Der Ring> for the first time.  


The charm of ‘the division of the Korean peninsula’ as a symbol

It is very rare to use symbols of ‘the division’ in opera performances in Korea. These kind of symbols are even rarer in the works which are heavily influenced by the reaction of the audience and the sale of tickets. I have recently seen symbols of gender equality including the Me Too movement and workplace bullying like Gapjil in the Korean society, but the division seems to have become an unimpressive issue for Koreans. Or any Korean producers or directors have not found the way yet how they could put this issue on their stages which are designed to appeal to the taste of today’s Koreans.

Most Koreans might agree that the division is like fragments of bullets that have been buried somewhere in the body a long time ago. The fragments in the bullet wound that ordinarily seem to tolerable but occasionally cause severe pain. The fragments that did not kill me but left the chilling aftershock of a brush with death. However, despite its seriousness, Koreans seem to think that it is not such an original topic for performance because it has been already 70 years that the Korean War broke out. This is the sad reason of why this metaphor is hard to make a deep impression on Koreans.

Western producers, in my experiences especially Germans, tend to pay particular attention to the reality of the division when designing performances for the Korean audience. Perhaps it is because Germans experienced and Koreans currently have the divided nation.

What is interesting is that when foreign directors staged some performance with the theme of the division, at least in my case, I felt more unfamiliar than impressed. Sometimes Koreans’ injuries caused by the division are delicate that they sometimes can not even recognize themselves, but the symbol of ‘the division’ in the performance is succinct and explicit. Perhaps it was because of cultural differences. The difference between a culture that can speak words like “unification”, “the division,” “communism,” or “North Korea” without fear of censorship and torture and the other culture that can not.

One of the key points for easy opera: plain language

The reason that Freyer’s Korean version of the ring was not easy enough for the Korean audience was probably in a factor he would not consider at all. It is the subtitle. In opera performances made in foreign languages, subtitles have a significant influence on the reception of them. However, this topic seems to have not been quite attracted to academic or popular interest.
Not surprisingly, the subtitles of this opera were very literary. The original script by Wagner is written in the literary style, thereby writing the Korean version of that script likewise. Thus, one might say that it is natural that the translated script in Freyer’s <Der Ring> was written in the literary style. It was well suited to Wagner’s intentions as he wanted to make his audience consider his work from a philosophical point of view. 
However, his intention as a director and the meaning of the opera could have been conveyed easier if he used the subtitles with the colloquialized translation. Recently many opera companies in Korea translated the original script into spoken Korean. I guess that his <Nibelung> would be easier with this kind of the script. 


Novelty and originality

I read articles written by people who watched Freyer’s works and watched Youtube videos before I went to the theater as I have not seen any previous works directed by Achim Freyer at theaters. Unfortunately, I have not found anything more advanced or novel than any other works he had produced before his <Der Ring> in Korea.
As far as I figure, it might not be a work that belongs to him if someday he selects his masterpieces among his oeuvre.
For example, black cloth with a big white circle is used when Wotan, King of the Gods, and Rogue, demigod of fire, move to meet Alberich, one of Nibelungs. Roge and Alberich walk on the black cloth while walking toward the audience, symbolizing their journey by pulling the cloth slightly behind. However, this stagecraft is old hat which has frequently used in various genres like plays and puppet shows. Ahim Fryer seems to have a stronger identity as a painter than an opera director. Yoo Jung-woo (유정우), the president of the Wagner Association of Korea (한국바그너협회), gave more detailed explanations about Freyer’s opera direction. “From the first scene that depicts the flow of the river, a circle is drawn on the floor symbolizing the ring and most of the scene is performed on it. This visual symbol of the power and desire of the ring dominating the drama has already been used in many productions since the 1950s.”(here)

Freyer shows powerful images that could never be forgotten but seemed rather weak in the interpretation of opera. 
It was refreshing to see a change of light through the installation of a thin film in front of the stage. However, the shape of the lighting was almost invisible on the third floor. From the viewpoint of the audience often viewing the opera on the third floor because of its high cost, I guess directors do not anticipate any visual or acoustic obstacles from the second or third floor because they tend to stay on the first floor whenever they envision their direction.

Some thoughts on Music

The Prime Philharmonic Orchestra, unfortunately, did not meet my expectations. I have seen many operas performed by this orchestra and have found it to be a good level of performance compared to other orchestras in Korea. However, a short practice period could not countervail the lack of experience with Wagner operas. Six players of Bayreuther Festspiele Kunstler which is composed of one viola, two tenor tubas, two bass tubas, and one English horn, looked not enough to have much effect. Brass including horns and trumpets made several mistakes from the beginning to the end at the important parts, and Leitmotiv which is supposed to emphasize the seemingly endless flow was surprisingly segmental. If there are readers who can’t understand my feeling well, please imagine that what it is like to play Wagner opera in the manner of Verdi opera. The mistakes the performers made would have been beyond the control of Matthias Fletzberger. But the way of how to play the Wagner opera could have been better if he had been more skillful when training the orchestra.

Wotan played by 김동섭(Gerard Kim), Roge by Arnold Bezuyen, and Woglinde by Alexandra Steiner remain in my memory. My review of Freyer’s <Das Rheingold>, the first work of <Der Ring des Nibelungen> in Korea, is somewhat skeptical. But I would like to make it clear that the performance was never disappointing or ridiculous. While watching the work, I realized that many people did their best for this performance. As far as I have experienced, it was the first time that all members of the orchestra have the stage greeting after the opera on the stage, not in the orchestra pit. Though the stage looked somewhat cluttered, I like this idea that shows the respect for all members of the orchestra. My writing is for a record of what the first <Der Ring> in Korea was like. Success does not come overnight. I look forward to more original ideas from Freyer and more advanced performances of the orchestra in the next performances.






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