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Emboldened by 'Phantom of the Opera,' Korean performing arts sector slowly returns to life

All News 15:35 June 11, 2020

By Chang Dong-woo

SEOUL, June 11 (Yonhap) -- Out of many remarkable heroes the world has witnessed throughout the course of the COVID-19 crisis, one group stands out uniquely, as a symbol of humanity's yearning for a small slice of normalcy in the face of unfavorable conditions: the team behind the Seoul tour of "The Phantom of the Opera."

The "Phantom" show at Blue Square Hall in central Seoul has become a beacon of hope for the beleaguered global theater industry after its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, reportedly urged his government to follow the footsteps of South Korea's fight against the new coronavirus to save Britain's theater sector.

One of the longest-running Broadway and West End productions, "Phantom" has been suspended across the globe due to the virus situation, except in Seoul, where a 126-member production continues to play eight shows a week under rigid cautionary measures, such as mandatory measuring of temperatures, surveys on symptoms or virus-related contacts and wearing of masks at all times.

This photo provided by Stagetalk shows a highlight from the 2020 Seoul tour of the musical "The Phantom of the Opera." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

It's not as if "Phantom" in Seoul hadn't had hiccups along the road. The production was suspended from early April for about three weeks after two members of the cast contracted COVID-19. It reopened later that month after the cast tested negative while the company adopted a stronger health safety regimen in line with government guidelines.

Since then, no cases related to the large-scale production or its attendees have been reported. Oliver Dowden, Britain's culture secretary, even asked his Seoul counterpart, Park Yang-woo, about how South Korea managed to keep the show afloat even during these pressing conditions.

"We discussed challenges facing our sectors & also how we can start to reopen with safety precautions. Fascinating to hear what they've been doing to reopen West End shows safely," the British secretary wrote on Twitter on June 3 after a videoconference call with the South Korean culture minister.

"Phantom" in Seoul has even extended its run until Aug. 8, from its previous end date of June 27, and has also announced a follow-up tour in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, from mid-August to late September.

This file photo provided by the culture ministry shows Park Yang-woo (R), South Korean culture minister, holding a video conference meeting with his British counterpart, Oliver Dowden (on monitor), at the government complex in Seoul on June 3, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The success story of "Phantom" in Seoul indicates hope for the overall performing arts industry in South Korea, even in light of concerns from recent new outbreaks in and around the capital. After months of frustration from cancellations, organizers of shows and concerts are slowly but steadily announcing live in-person events emboldened by the exemplar of "Phantom."

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO), led by Osmo Vanska, has announced it will conduct a live concert at the Jamsil Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul on June 18-19, which will be the orchestra's first live performance in four months.

The concert will require musicians to be spaced 1.5 meters from one another on stage, with audience seats also to be arranged under social distancing guidelines.

The orchestra had initially prepared for sets on Johannes Brahms and Camille Saint-Saens but changed to those on Jean Sibelius and arranged sets of Gustav Mahler in order to accommodate an orchestra with less than 50 performers on stage.

SPO said it is also preparing contingency backups, setting up online streaming equipment in case of cancellations due to COVID-19 or other emergencies.

This file photo from June 5, 2020, shows a rehearsal of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra with members seated far apart and wearing masks at the Lotte Concert Hall in eastern Seoul. (Yonhap)

The House Concert, which specializes in small-sized, indoor classical concerts, also announced its monthlong annual summer music festival, named July Festival, from July 1-31. This year's programs will center around the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birthday.

The National Theater of Korea also decided to move forward with its annual Yeowoorak Festival, a hybrid music festival featuring both Western pop genres, such as hip-hop and jazz, along with traditional Korean genres, such as pansori and traditional exorcism rites.

Indie rock band Broccoli, You Too announced its annual summer concert as well, consisting of a total of nine shows between July 3-19 in Seoul's central district of Yongsan. The trio said the seats will be spaced over 1 meter from one another.

"This year's summer may be more gruesome compared to the ones before, but we can indeed create more cherishable memories if we work hard for them," the band said.

High-profile musicals are also making last minute preparations to greet audiences in person. "Mozart!" a Korean adaptation of the German-language production of the same name, starts a run in Seoul from June 11-Aug. 9 at the Sejong Center for Performing Arts. Korean adaptations of "Rent" and "42nd Street" are also slated to open in the coming months.

Despite signs of normalizing of the performing arts, the K-pop industry at the moment is maintaining its focus on online shows, with the emphasis on maximizing the reach towards a global audience.

K-pop giant BTS plans to throw a paid online concert, "Bang Bang Con: The Live," on Sunday, providing viewers with the option to watch the show from six different viewing angles.

Big Hit Entertainment, BTS' management agency, recently forged a strategic partnership with U.S. streaming service provider Kiswe Mobile to cooperate in areas of real-time online concerts.

K-pop girl group (G)I-dle of Cube Entertainment plans to hold an online concert on July 5 for global streaming. The six-piece multinational act had planned on a 32-city international tour but had to cancel due to the virus situation. Boy band SuperM also successfully held a paid online concert last month, drawing some 75,000 fans from across the world.

This photo, released on Oct. 29, 2019, by Big Hit Entertainment, shows K-pop stars BTS performing during the final concert of its world tour, "Love Yourself: Speak Yourself," in Seoul. The Seoul shows were held on Oct. 26-27 and Oct. 29. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)


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