Wagner in Korea (part1)

Die Zukunftsmusik, Vanity Fair, London 1877 via Wikimedia Commons

Vanity Fair (1877)

This year at work, one name would come up from time to time when I last expected it. I’m talking about Wagner. Yes, Richard Wagner, Anti-Semite Bayreuth-bound Composer of Deep and Epic Operas, would have had his 200th birthday this year.[1] That is, if he hadn’t died in 1883, the year of the first diplomatic contact between Korea and Germany aka 한-독수교 130 주년, another current jubilee!

I have to admit: I’m not his biggest fan. Since weeks of close-listening to Die Meistersinger in high school, I couldn’t care less about Wagner’s output. Until now, I have only seen one of his operas, The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer), just before leaving for Seoul in early 2010.

© Theater Taptoe, photo: Neuköllner Oper via OpernBlog

© Theater Taptoe, photo: Neuköllner Oper via OpernBlog

The wonderfully minimalist production by the Belgian ensemble Theater Taptoe (that disbanded shortly afterwards) and the musicians of I Solisti del Vento was shown by Neuköllner Oper, Berlin’s fourth—and maybe most interesting—opera house. It featured a reduced ensemble, a four-man-choir, puppets, shadow play, and more stunning ideas to make this overly romantic tale digestible today.[2]

Incidentally (or not?), the Dutchman (방황하는 네덜란드인) was also the first of Wagner’s operas to be shown in Korea. I learned more about “Wagner’s premiere in Korea” when I translated an eponimous essay for the homepage of Goethe-Institut Korea. Written by Jeong Eun-suk (정은숙), former head of the Korea National Opera (국립오페라단) and leading lady in The Flying Dutchman, the text combines an introduction to the history of (Western) opera in Korea with memories of the Dutchman production from 1974. You find the Korean original and my German translation on the homepage of Goethe Institut Korea.[3]

On the occasion of Wagner’s bicentennial, several events took place in Korea. This video clip from Arirang News presents some of them.

Parsifal © Korea National Opera

Parsifal © Korea National Opera

The highlight was a production of Parsifal (파르지팔) by the Korea National Opera (국립오페라단) last fall.[4]

But why should I care about this hype?

Wagner’s operas are known as “musikdrama”[5]. Whatever you call it, opera is music theatre is theatre. While doing the translation, I got interested in how Wagner was received in Korea. Using the keywords “바그너” and “한국”, I made a brief check-up of academic literature at RISS—and was surprised when exactly 333 search results came up.[6]

Unsurprisingly, almost all texts deal with Wagner in general, in other words: without specific relation to Korea. There are two anthologies of short essays by the Korean Wagner Society, though, that might be of interest. They were published on the occasion of the society’s 10th[7] and 20th anniversary[8], respectively.

I couldn’t find find a single paper that explicitly analyzes productions of Wagner in Korea. This mirrors trends in studies on Brecht and other authors that were well-received in Korea.

However, I also stumbled upon two recent studies that draw very peculiar comparisons. Both are written by scholars with a background in German studies, as the translations of title and abstract indicate. The first paper compares the incest motive in Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (니벨룽의 반지) and Park Chan-wook’s movie Oldboy (올드보이, 감독: 박찬욱). Interestingly, this article was published in the journal of the Korean Brecht Society (한국브레히트학회).[9]

But it was the second paper that caught my attention… Find out why in the upcoming second part of this post. It’s already written, just needs some more tweaking. So this is, finally, not an empty promise.

— 22 May 2013 ( 水)


  1. See an article by Ofer Aderet on the controversial legacy of Wagner (published in Haaretz, 23 May 2013).  ↩
  2. Find more information on the production here. See a German review at OpernBlog.  ↩
  3. My colleagues also produced a hilarious videoclip (here the Korean version) for the blog “My Personal Wagner”. In an interview (here the Korean original), Su-Cheol Cho (조수철), the current president of the Korean Wagner Society (한국바그너협회, also on Facebook) talks about his personal encounter with the “master” and his meaning in contemporary Korea.  ↩
  4. Find more information at Interpark and a review at the I Hear Voices-blog  ↩
  5. Wagner himself, though he admitted to having “reason to suppose that this term was invented for sake of honouring my later dramatic works with a distinctive classification”, had doubts about the merits of this term, which he elaborates on in an essay from 1872. See the English translation by William Ashton Ellis of “Über die Benennung ‘Musikdrama’” (“On the name ‘Musikdrama’”).  ↩
  6. To be exact, on Dec. 26th it was 18 dissertations, 99 papers, and 216 books. As usual, the majority was completely unrelated to what interested me, but…  ↩
  7. 『바그너와 나 : 창립 10주년 기념문집』, 서울 : 삶과 꿈, 2003, 310 p. (ISBN: 8975946169 03810, RISS)  ↩
  8. 『바그너와 우리 : 한국바그너협회 창립 20주년 및 바그너 탄생 200주년 기념 문집』 (“Wagner und wir”), 서울 : 삶과꿈, 2013, 288 p. (ISBN: 9788975947827 03810, RISS)  ↩
  9. 권혁준 (Hyuck Zoon Kwon), 「현대예술 및 문화 : 사회적 금기의 예술적 형상화 -바그너의 음악극『니벨룽의 반지』와 영화 『올드보이』에서의 “근친상간” 모티프 연구」 (Untersuchung zur Darstellung des Inzestmotivs in Wagners Ring des Nibelungen und im Film Old Boy), 브레히트와 현대연극, Vol. 23 (2010). (RISS)  ↩

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Wagner in Korea (part1)

  1. Pingback: Wagner and Korea (part2) | Seoul Stages

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