The Italian Opera Craze in East Asia

Why is Italian opera so loved in East Asia? We spoke to opera fans and professionals across the region to find out.

Italian Opera singers from Asia
South Korean opera professor Hyo Soon Lee. Photo courtesy of the author.

It often happens when Italian tourists abroad need an interpreter or guide to move around, usually in those countries without much of a settled Italian community. Especially in Asia, these tourists often find students who study arts — and often those who study Italian opera — to be their tourist guides and translators.

Thus, amazingly, Italian tourists find themselves learning more about their own culture from those young Asians or Russians than they had expected. Faced with such enthusiasm, they see with their own eyes the importance of Italian cultural products within the context of other cultures. And they see just how much it means to local opera enthusiasts to hear a native Italian talk to them in the language of classical music.

The phenomenal boom of Italian opera in east Asia over the last couple of decades makes us ponder upon the question: why is Italian opera so appreciated abroad? What makes it so unique and so loved in eastern Asia, while it dwindles in its country of birth?

One answer comes from the music itself. Opera is a musical genre that displays a harmonious balance of intellectual and cultural values. Human feelings and the internal spiritual world find in opera a synthesis with the traditions of music, literature, visual arts, and drama.

In this sense, opera has become popular in the east due to its innate musical power. The healing energy that it produces can even measured scientifically on the biological and mathematical levels. For example, one scientific study saw that mice who were played opera lived three times as long as those that didn’t. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.

Yet, there’s a more concrete fact to consider. As opera houses close all around us in Italy, new ones are opening their doors in Asia. That’s largely a matter of funding. While the Italian state has progressively slashed funding for the cultural industries over the last decades, in Asia cash remains available. In Beijing alone, $17 billion is being spent on live music. And a similar picture of state support can be seen across the region.

The view from South Korea

To get a clearer view of the east Asian reception of Italian opera, we spoke to Hyo Soon Lee, currently the only opera professor of South Korean origin in Italy. She arrived in Italy in 1996 and, after her studies at conservatoires across the country, has now been working in conservatoires herself for almost 15 years.

As Hyo Soon Lee points out, South Korea has made great achievements in the field of opera performance in a very short time. Wonderful arts centers and theatres have been built, where more and more operas have been produced each year, all performed by opera singers that once had studied in Italy.

Yet, it’s not just about governmental politics promoting European culture and arts in South Korea. Hyo Soon highlights that opera is something of profound importance to her — and to many others in Asia. Thus, 25 years ago she took the decision to come to Italy only because she really desired to understand the world of opera and to discover the origins of this beautiful art.

Italian opera professor Hyo Soon Lee
Italian opera professor Hyo Soon Lee.

“In general the mentality of South Korean people is to see, find, or look for the seeds of whatever good, beautiful, and useful things exist and make them grow and develop — not just throw them away because at first sight they may seem insignificant.

“For us, studying and learning something profoundly is not about demonstrating some kind of superiority, but to find true happiness through this constant process of research, and do something fruitful for this world. That’s why I love teaching and working with my students. Opera offers the perfect combination of everything to learn about our own internal nature, understand our own soul, body, our breath, psychology, our traumas and how to heal them. As a result, we become able to discover, give and share new emotions through the art of singing.

“To sing opera arias means to learn not only music, but also languages, pronunciation of open and closed vocals, the meaning of the ancient Italian language, the history behind of this language — everything. Then, when we return home, we teach in turn what we have learned here in Italy, making Italian opera culture spread. Our first opera theatres were built as the consequence of our intense studies here in Italy. The first singers brought those ‘seeds’ to make them grow. We have always helped to develop Italian culture and opera, because we profoundly love what opera has been able to offer to our own lives.

“People in Korea adore opera!” Hyo Soon says. “Therefore, it’s also great a responsibility to sing in front of a very intelligent, well-informed public. This is another reason why our Korean young opera singers invest a lot in studying here — so they can be the best they possibly can be. Especially when the families and parents make every sacrifice to support their studies and their lives here in Italy.”

On the steppes of Central Asia

Meanwhile, Italian opera has also reached the steppes of Central Asia and Siberia. Walking in the streets, if you ask any Mongolian in Ulaanbaatar — or any Buryat in Ulan-Ude in Siberia — what they know of Italy, the first thing they would say is “Italy is the cradle of opera.” No, not pizza, wine, fashion, or even Rome.

Mongolia goes crazy for opera — and they go crazy for their opera singers. Surprisingly perhaps, Mongolia is the country with the highest number of international opera singing competition winners over the last decade. But compared to South Korea, Japan, or China, Italian opera reached the country in a rather different way.

The word ‘opera’ itself came to Mongolia through the musical films and documentaries of Mongolia’s first professional cinematographer — the film director, and father of the documentary film in Mongolia, Tseveenii Zandraa. In the 1950s and 60s, he invited Mongolia’s first professional opera singers, who had studied in conservatoires across the Soviet Union, to be actors in his films. They would sing pieces from national operas and traditional Mongolian songs. As a result of his innovations, he not only won international cinema festivals awards abroad — bringing home the cinematographic Grand PRIX to Mongolia for the first time — but he made all of Mongolia fall in love with traditional opera too.

The effect of those music films by Tseveenii Zandraa, who presented professional singers on-screen was strong enough to even make the Mongolian government invest more into theatre arts and opera performance at a national level. Seeing opera singers on the screen had a great impact on Anastasia Filatova, for example, the First Lady of Mongolia, the wife of the General Secretary of Mongolia, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal.  She always aspired for a political role of her own, and so her First Lady’s Fund became one of the main institutions for the development of culture and arts, through scholarships and financial support.

Later, the entire generation whose musical education she sponsored after having completed their studies in the Soviet Union began performing not only Mongolian national operas, but operas of Italian greats such as Pergolesi, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and others, on the stage of the Academic State Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia.

This way, Italian culture came to Mongolia.

Nowadays, the pandemic aside, in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, attending the opera remains a beautiful way to spend an evening, socializing and spending time with friends while discovering very strong opera talent. As the Russian Music Life Magazine wrote in a recent review of the Obraztsova Opera Contest in St Petersburg, “It has been noticed that Mongolian singers seem to have some secret knowledge and superpowers for singing.”

Italian opera in Far Eastern Russia

Opera has developed through the centuries, surviving from historical crisis to the next. Yet, surely, the famous Camerata de Bardi of 16th-century Florence would have never imagined the impact they would have across the world. What began as an attempt to rejuvenate classical Greek values has now reached Vladivostok, the Asian steppes, Siberia, and the coasts of South Korea or Vietnam.

We spoke to Vera Kulikova, a great lover of the opera from Vladivostok, one of the most eastern cities in Russia. She herself studied opera singing in her youth, and now she attends almost every opera performance at the Seaside Scene of Mariinsky Theatre of Vladivostok, one of the most innovative new opera theatres of the last decade in Russia. Every year extremely strong casts sing the biggest names in Italian opera not only to the people of Vladivostok, but to visitors from Japan, South Korea, and China, too.

Italian opera tenor Mergen Sandanov
Tenor Mergen Sandanov from Vladivostok, Russia.

“Definitively, for me, Italy is opera,” Vera says. “This is the only way for our public to get in touch with Italian culture, its great music, and the language of classical music. Opera creates a vision of another world.

“My favorite operas by Verdi are Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo, or La Traviata. Simon Boccanegra was brought here for one of the festivals held at the Theatre. Sometimes, the premiers are sung by famous ‘external’ soloists — for example, last year’s premier of Don Carlos was sung by the guest singer Ildar Abdrazakov, and this autumn season’s Don Carlos was performed by tenor Mergen Sandanov. He is one of my favorite soloists together with the soprano Alena Diyanova, who sings Turandot.

“Our soloists do represent Italian culture, bringing strong emotions when they sing Italian operas. For us, its surely them who connect us somehow to Italy.”

New challenges, new opportunities

Despite the COVID pandemic, new brilliant opera singers and classical musicians continue emerge. Our industry’s professionals have continued to nurture their passion and remain active. Meanwhile, the pandemic has opened some alternative ways to reach the public, from digital streaming to intimate performances.

This is what delights the hearts of the public. And all across the world in places where its earliest practitioners could never have expected — such a great cultural treasure as opera continues its life, despite the difficult circumstances of the last two years.

Ayana Sambuu is the president of the Rome-based New Opera Dimensions Cultural Association, which is in constant collaboration with opera singers abroad, especially of Asian countries and Russia. It seems that the COVID pandemic has been slowing down, and borders have been gradually reducing restrictions. By inviting some finalists and best semifinalists of the italian prestigious Worldwide Opera Singing Competition Vincerò, New Opera Dimensions has put on the schedule the concert event International Opera Galà to be held on November 3 at the Concert Hall of Sala Baldini — in the very heart of Rome — within the courtyard of the antique roman Theatre of Marcello.

The finalists from Mongolia, the Buryatian Republic of Russia, and Vladivostok have been expecting their visas to Italy, whilst South Korean singers are already in Rome preparing for this great event.

Being able to see our public and sing for them, after two long years, would symbolize a new start and new reopening to share this beautiful opera arts — the other Italy that has made a great journey till the Extreme Orient.

For bookings: Whatsapp (+39 370 3231450) or visit the Facebook Page of New Opera Dimensions.

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