'Tis the season for 'Nutcracker' in Seoul

'Tis the season for 'Nutcracker' in Seoul
A scene from Universal Ballet Korea’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

A year-end tradition continues as Tchaikovsky's ballet "Nutcracker," Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 "Choral" and other seasonal favorites all return to Seoul's cultural scene.

From Seoul Arts Center in the south to the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in the north, the always-popular returning classics take up a large part of the lineup, while some new productions add a spice of diversity.

Here's a guide to the music and performing arts scene this festive season, including seasonal favorites as well as some ways to avoid the tinsel.

Three different Nutcrackers

In the ballet world, December means it's time for "The Nutcracker."

This season, the country's three main ballet companies are presenting three different versions of the 122-year-old classic.

The Universal Ballet's production, to be presented at the Universal Arts Center from Dec. 19-31, is based on Russian choreographer Vasily Vainonen's 1934 version. Some 80 dancers and 40 students from Sunhwa Arts School and Universal Ballet Academy will stage the performance that tells the classic tale of Clara, the nutcracker, soldiers and fairies at Christmas Eve.

The National Ballet of Korea's work will be staged at the Opera Theater of the Seoul Arts Center from Dec. 20-28. The troupe will continue its 14-year-old version choreographed by Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi Theatre in 1966. In this version, the heroine Clara is rechristened Mary and the role of the nutcracker, which is usually portrayed as a wooden doll onstage, is played by a child dancer.

Seoul Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker" peppers Korean flavor to the Russian classic tale at the Suwon SK Atrium in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province from Dec. 27-28. James Jeon, the artistic director of the troupe, reinterpreted the performance faster in tempo compared to the other versions, while Korean folk dances and janggu (Korean drum) performances are included in the repertoire. Instead of the beloved character Mother Ginger ― a giant gingerbread house ― wearing a voluminous dress, she will dress up in a Korean traditional hanbok worn by queens.

Symphony 'Choral' or other choral music

Now almost a tradition, Seoul's two most beloved orchestras are both wrapping up the year with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 "Choral."

KBS Symphony Orchestra will perform the masterpiece, under the baton of guest principal conductor Kwak Sung, with a 140-member choir and vocal soloists on Dec. 18 at Seoul Arts Center and Dec. 19 at KBS Hall.

On Dec. 26-27, maestro Chung Myung-whun will lead his Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in the performance of the same piece at Seoul Arts Center. Italian soprano Maria Luigia Borsi is among the soloists to be featured.

For those who want to savour more choral music, the National Chorus of Korea offers Handel's oratorio "Messiah," another year-end tradition, on Dec. 22 at Seoul Arts Center.

The Little Singers of Paris, a world-renowned boys' choir comprising about 100 signers aged 8 to 15, will tour Korea, with a programme of "Hallelujah," one of the most recognizable pieces in Messiah, other classical music pieces and Christmas carols. Two concerts are scheduled for Dec. 19 and 20 at Seoul Arts Center.

In the operatic scene, the Korea National Opera is presenting Johan Strauss II's comic opera "Die Fledermaus" (The Bat) from Dec. 12-14 at the Opera House of Seoul Arts Center.

Musicals and theatre plays

Two Broadway sensations have recently arrived in Seoul and are now vying for the attention of local musical fans with distinctively different appeals. "Kinky Boots," which bagged six Tony Awards last year, is a feel-good show that follows a struggling British shoe factory's young, straitlaced owner, Charlie, who forms an unlikely partnership with Lola, a drag queen, to save the business. Music is composed by US pop music icon Cyndi Lauper.

"Once" won eight Tony Awards in 2012, including the trophy for the year's Best Musical. It is the story of Guy, an Irish street musician and vacuum cleaner repairman who falls in love with Girl, a Czech flower seller. It is based on a 2006 film of the same title and has the movie's powerful numbers, such as "Falling Slowly."

"Kinky Boots" runs through Feb. 22 at Chungmu Art Hall, while "Once" plays through March 29 at the 1,000-seat CJ Towol Theater in Seoul Arts Center.

In the field of stage plays, the Shakespeare theme still prevails.

"Richard II," the great master's history play that narrates the life and death of the English King, will be staged here to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth this year. A National Theater Company of Korea production, the play will be staged at the Daloreum Theater of the National Theater of Korea in Seoul from Dec. 18-28.

Romanian director Felix Alexa, known for defiant reinterpretation of classics, will take the helm of the production to tell a very political story of Richard II's demise, as a result of his Cousin Bolingbroke's usurpation of the crown. The director noted that the play is "a journey of a man looking for his soul rather than a historic or political play."

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