Singapore Korea Festival, enthralled by 'Soul Mate'

This article was published in on 27 October 2014.

Every loving couple worldwide cherishes the same kinds of feelings for each other, whether they are from the East, the West, the past, the future or even from a different country.

A man and a woman are joined by fate as husband and wife. Nannies continue to bring in babies wrapped in blankets, shouting out, "It's a boy," or, "It's a girl," representing grandchildren. Then, several dozen children take to the stage and the theater resonates with bursts of laughter and applause from the audience.

On the occasion of Korea Festival 2014, underway in Singapore from September 30 to November 22, the Korea National Opera's performance was received with great delight by local audiences. Throughout the performance, the final outcome of the two couples' love was anticipated with curiosity, and cheers and applause broke out at the happy conclusion. As the title, "Soul Mate," implies, the match made in heaven had the audience members leaving their seats with a smile on their faces.

On October 25 and 26 at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre, the two-stringed violin-like haegeum, the 12-stringed zither, or gayageum, and the large bamboo flute, the daegeum, were all played alongside the harp, making an extraordinary prelude to the opera.

The opera then opens with the villagers gossiping about the wedding talks going on between the wealthy-yet-lacking-in-social-status Mongwan of the Maeng Jinsa family and the economically-challenged-yet-of-higher-status only daughter Seohyang of the Kim Panseo family. However, the two most affected by the marriage discussions, Mongwan and Seohyang, are miserable due to the fact that the talks are taking no heed of their own desires.

The two take advantage of the traditional Dano holiday in May to exchange places with their own servants, to test the other's heart. When the performers repeatedly sang, "The servant becomes the owner, the owner becomes the servant," the audience succumbed to laughter as giggles sprang out here and there.

The two who took the place of the servants fell in love at first sight and the two who took their owners' places also fell for each other. After many episodes, including an elopement, they return home to marry with everyone's blessing. The final embellishment is that the couple have dozens of children, with sets of male and female twins, and live happily ever after.

Although the traditional Korea-style love story was unfamiliar to many Singaporeans, it was evident that they enjoyed it and were moved by the tale. Professor Richard John Adams of the Department of Music at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts gave his appraisal, saying, "A smart opera with a lively and comic stage, under the universal theme of love." Katie, an office worker, said that it was, "a charming piece, like a Hallyu drama." A German guest added, "Unlike a western opera, it's cute."

Lim June-hee, a professor at the Korea National University of Arts and also the composer of this opera in 2005, said, "Although I was concerned with possible delays in the tight schedule, the local orchestra played successfully, so I am content."

Just how Singaporeans would take to Korean opera was itself a worry. Choi Young-suk, head of the performing arts department at the Korea National Opera, said, "We hoped for the best, given that Korea has a long history of epic story-telling through pansori, which is similar to opera. Also, the singers and dancers are just top-notch, world class, and the opera company did a lot of work on their staging. This was an opportunity for the people of Singapore to get closer with both traditional Korean and classical European music."

Suh Chung-ha, Seoul's ambassador in Singapore, said that, "This year's Korea Festival 2014, in time to celebrate next year's 40th anniversary of Korea-Singapore diplomatic relations and this year's Korea-ASEAN summit, showcases a variety of high-quality Korean art and music. I hope it becomes a regular festival, enjoyed by locals and visiting Koreans alike."

The Korea Festival 2014 features a film festival, Korean cuisine, traditional games, performances on board a harbour tour and a food fair. It continues in Singapore until November 22.

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