Challenges Operatic and Dramatic: Koreans in Germany

I’ve been fortunate to meet up with not a few Koreans here in Berlin and have also been busily enjoying a pile of articles in the German press about Korea. This past weekend the Suddeutscher Zeitung (for my money the best paper on planet earth) had a huge feature on the increasing domination of German opera houses and choruses by South Korean singers.

Citation: Rudolf Neumaier, “Die Choreaner kommen: Globaliserung ueberall: Saenger aus Fernost erobern die deutschen Buehnen.  Sind se eifriger, billiger — oder einfach besser? (The Chorus of Koreans Come: Globalisation Everywhere: Singers from the Far East Take Over the German Stage; Are they Shrewder, Cheaper — or Simply Better?),” Suddeutsche Zeitung [South German Daily], June 19/20, Weekend Section, p. 2.

While the article is not online (meaning you have to take my word it exists, which I pledge to you it does), nevertheless the article was widely read in a newspaper-hungry Deutschland, and it raised many many provocative questions.  For instance, to what extent does Germany integrate Koreans?  Is apprehension toward Korean singers just a stand-in for German nervousness about South Korean economic competition for such valued things as the Chinese automobile export market?   If Asian singers are encouraged to play Wagnerian roles like Siegfried as opposed to the type-casting “for which they were made” in Puccini’s Turandot, why does that cause audience discomfort in Bayreauth?  Is Germany racist?  Or are we on toward a deeper connection because, after all, the Korean soul is so similar to the Germanic soul, wandering as it does so freely in nature.

The article seems to answer negatively on several counts, saying “the time for Samurai Siegried is passed,” and rather wildly mixing in stereotypes of Japanese and Chinese with Korea.  Can you imagine a Korean singer wanting to be associated with Peking Opera?  More unnerving still, the article is accompanied by the following image, but with each Korean face circled in red (there are 10, for the record).

Chor des Staatstheater Nürnberg

For a guy who is feeling just a little more sensitive than usual regarding the history of the concentration of the European Jews in the late 1930s, I think this kind of thing — excess attention to ethnicity — has some serious pitfalls.  Liberation, the Parisian journal, with the exception of its recent coverage of one riot outbreak in the Chinese quarter in Paris, does not report the person’s race in news stories.  In Germany the situation is different for Koreans, who certainly aren’t rioting in the streets, but they’re awfully polite and completely unassertive even in crowd situations like last night after the ROK tie/victory in the World Cup.  Korean Germans don’t make much noise, unless it’s on stage.  As one opera baritone who came 7 years ago from Seoul said in an interview:

“Here [in Germany] I walked out into the street and I preceded myself with song.  Like I did at home, in Seoul.  Then I thought to myself, why isn’t anyone else singing in the street?  And the feeling dawned on me that everything for me would be messed up.”

Since that time [the article continues with omniscient narration], he only sang in his work, in the Church, or at home with his 5-year-old daughter.

So the opera battle will continue, as it has been doing for centuries.  Who is allowed to sing? indeed.

But today I found probably the most quirky appearance of Koreans in the guise of a German television show entitled “Allein unter Bauern” about a small town mayor who is doing his best among peasants to build a political career that will lead him to become Germany’s foreign minister.  In episode 5, “Der Koreaner kommt [The Koreans come]” he tries to bring a factory to his little town.  Enjoy the photos!


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