Opera in the East

Written by Case Nafziger


Untitled. Judy Her, Seocheon.

“Untitled” by Judy Her. Photo taken in Seocheon.

“You. Sing.”

Cheong Ho pointed to the book he’d just placed on my music stand, a vocal score for Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” He flipped open the cover and traced his finger down through the character list, stopping on the last role: The Page.

“You. Sing?” he said again, beaming at me with warm, crinkled dimples. Cheong Ho knew little English, but it was clear he knew what he was asking.

I had been playing violin with Jeju Modern Arts for no more than a month. We were a small pit orchestra led by two middle-aged brothers, Cheong Ho and Cheong Do, the latter of whom we affectionately referred to as Hong-thoven. At our first rehearsal I’d sat in the middle of the room, discretely tuning my violin underneath the haze of Korean chatter taking place between the 30 other musicians around me. Since then, I usually just showed up with my violin and played what was placed in front of me, relying on exaggerated gestures and simple English for communication.

I didn’t plan to pursue music in Korea. After 17 years of violin and a college voice degree, a strong reason I had applied to live and teach abroad was to see whether I missed performing or not. I had requested to live in Jeju for the natural beauty, the beaches, the forests and the big mountain, knowing that it was also probably the least likely place for me to pursue any musical endeavors. But here I was with a Korean opera role and a charming, bright-faced ajusshi (middle-aged man) staring me in the face.

Sensing my hesitation, Cheong Ho summoned a violinist with good English to explain the performance dates, the rehearsal schedule, and the fact that I would indeed be singing in Korean and not English. It was a very small role, but I felt a sudden rush of excitement as I thought about learning the music, researching the character, applying the make-up and taking the stage. I had been in a rut for a few months, a combination of depression, homesickness and the autumn cold, and with this prospect of singing I felt suddenly lifted. My answer was simple.

“Yes,” I said, “I’d love to sing!”

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” is a nativity story in which the three Wise Men travel across the land with their servant, the Page, bearing gifts for Jesus. The Page sings only 20 seconds of music, almost all of which takes place while trying to wrestle pieces of gold from the hands of Amahl’s greedy, old mother.

The five lead actors, all professional singers in Seoul, were due to arrive in Jeju just three days prior to the show’s opening, and Cheong Ho would teach us the stage directions for the entire show on their first night in town. I had never been more nervous for a rehearsal. I was much younger than the other singers, had no professional opera experience, and wasn’t close to being fluent in Korean. Furthermore, my stage experience was limited to the U.S. Midwest. I had no idea what to expect from a director halfway around the globe.

I arrived early and sat alone under the bright industrial lights of the rehearsal room, sipping yujacha (Korean citrus tea) in an attempt to calm my nerves. Suddenly the door opened and five people entered wearing puffy winter coats, long scarves (to protect their vocal cords, no doubt), and refreshingly familiar singer personas: the diva soprano who vocalizes elaborate trills every spare second; the petite and motherly mezzo, set to play the sweet and boyish Amahl; the cheerful tenor; the bass with the absurdly low speaking voice who thinks he’s the hottest thing in every room.

Rehearsal was a blur. Cheong Ho gave directions in rapid Korean. My new baritone friend playing Melchior relayed some of it to me in English, but only general commands like “You enter now” or “Don’t do that.” The rest was up to me. I chose where to drop the Page’s rug in Amahl’s house, where to set my birdcage, when to bow to the wise men, whether to rub their feet during moments of silence or instead admire their immaculately colored robes. There was constant pushing and pulling as I walked too slowly for the entrance of the wise men or failed to move the table out of the way for the belly dancers. There were also plenty of laughs and frustrated grunts, which, in my overall confusion and frustration, I assumed were pointed at me. I felt utterly defeated at the end of that rehearsal. I was a burden to the other actors. I had the smallest role yet used the most of the director’s time.

I thought back to the night Cheong Ho had asked me to sing the role. I remembered the sudden boost of energy it had given me, the smile on my host mom’s face when I told had her, the sense of purpose I had found in the prospect of learning new music. How could I get past my insecurities and find that spark again? I had applied to be an English Teaching Assistant in Korea in part because I wanted to build my self-confidence, to learn how to improvise and trust my own instincts in a classroom full of kids, who are of course sometimes the toughest critics. Why not try to take myself a little less seriously on the stage as well? I was tired of making apologies for my lack of understanding. Apologies didn’t help the fact that I didn’t know where to place my damn birdcage.

On opening night, backstage was bustling. When I arrived at the male dressing room, the wise men were in various states of undress and make-up application. I found a spot in the corner to drop my bag and coat, and I surveyed the scene in wonder as Melchior and Kaspar ate kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) in shiny royal robes and Balthazar sat at the mirror in what appeared to be the early stages of blackface. Relax, I told myself while fishing the eyeliner pencil from my pocket.

Throughout my past theater experience, I learned that the 30 minutes before a show are typically filled with minor nervous breakdowns from various sopranos, slight staging changes and frantic costume alterations. Across the world on Jeju Island, this last-minute opera culture was in full flame.

Twenty-five minutes before showtime, Amahl’s mother came into my dressing room. “You. Push, too hard,” she said, pointing to the red burns across her elbow. Oh my god, I thought, remembering our onstage scuffle in the previous night’s rehearsal, in which I got somewhat lost in my lines of  “도둑이야! 도둑이야!” (Thief! Thief!), pushing the greedy woman forcefully to the ground. She hurried off amidst my profuse apologies.

Seconds later, I heard excited screams from the hallway. “Case Teacher! Case Teacher!” The wise men turned with me to watch as five high school girls appeared in the doorway bearing their own gifts: orange juice, donut holes and a chicken salad sandwich. “Good luck!” They laughed, and quickly scurried away after taking a set of selfie pics with their heavily made-up English seonsaengnim (teacher).

And for one final surprise, just ten minutes before curtain, Cheong Ho found me in the orchestra rehearsal room.

“You. Sing. ‘Silent Night,’” he said.

“’Silent Night’? When? How? How many verses? What’s my introduction? How many measures between each verse?” I whipped through this set of critical questions, and two minutes later and I was running backstage, birdcage in hand and oriental rug over shoulder, rehearsing the Christmas hymn in my head. All is calm, all is bright.

In similar fashion to the weeks leading up to the performance, the show itself was a blur, but it was a delicious one. I sang the first note of “Silent Night” from the aisle of the auditorium, heralding the arrival of the wise men and the calm of the season. As I looked around and saw the smiling faces of my host family, students, co-teachers and friends, I felt that blissfully familiar sense of comfort that always brings me back to theater. Throughout the next hour and a half, I was elated. As I opened the door to Amahl’s house, admired the chirping canary in the birdcage, watched the belly dancers gyrate beneath glowing candelabras and took the final bows alongside my five operatic comrades, I realized: Yes, this was opera, and it felt like home.