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Verdi's 'La Traviata' embraces time, beauty of Korea in early 20th century

By Park Ga-young

Published : April 17, 2024 - 17:04

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The cast of opera The cast of opera "La Traviata: Chun Hee" perform during a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)

Gyeongseong, as present-day Seoul was called during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, is the background of many popular TV shows, including “Mr. Sunshine" (2018) and “Gyeongseong Creature" (2023), or even in the musical “Il Tenoro" (2023).

While watching “Mr. Sunshine,” the head and artistic director of the Seoul Metropolitan Opera, Park Hye-jin, envisioned Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” set in 1900s to 1930s Korea instead of the original 19th-century Paris.

In the production of "La Traviata" directed by Lee Ray, Violetta, an independence activist, disguised as a geisha, endeavors to raise money for the independence movement by seducing Alfredo, the son of the wealthy Germont. However, she finds herself falling in love with the young man.

“Instead of focusing on historical events, we focused on emotions and the personal journeys of the characters,” Lee told reporters during a press conference.

“The setting of Gyeongseong in the 1900s will bring it closer to the audience, as they can think of it as stories about people around them rather than tales from a distant land,” Lee said.

The title, “La Traviata: Chun Hee," takes inspiration from the opera title used when it premiered in 1948 in Seoul -- “Chun Hee: The Lady of the Camellias." It was the first such opera to be performed in the country.

Park Hye-jin (left), artistic director of the Seoul Metropolitan Opera, and Lee Ray, director of Park Hye-jin (left), artistic director of the Seoul Metropolitan Opera, and Lee Ray, director of "La Traviata: Chun Hee" pose for photos at a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)

"The upcoming production will feature buildings and attire in both Western and traditional Korean styles, and show how Western culture and traditional culture met in Gyeongseong. In addition, fragrance will be part of the audience experience,” Park, the soprano-turned-director, said.

In terms of the music, little will be changed, according to conductor Year Ja-kyung.

The production will feature sopranos Lee Hye-jung and Lee Ji-hyun in the role of Violetta, tenors Chung Ho-yoon and Son Ji-hoon portraying Alfredo and baritones Kim Gi-hoon and Tito You as Germont.

“I will portray Germont wearing hanbok for the first time. Although opera is considered a comprehensive art form, it hasn't received much love in Korea. If more attention and effort were given to it, perhaps we could explore new interpretations and directions,” baritone You said.

“La Traviata: Chun Hee” is to run from April 25 to 28 at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.