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Triumph and tragedy during my time in Korea

WHEN I arrived in Glasgow 16 years ago as assistant director at Scottish Opera, I could not have imagined spending much of my career directing musicals, let alone in South Korea.

FAR FROM HOME: Director Adrian Osmond with translator InJung Lee.
FAR FROM HOME: Director Adrian Osmond with translator InJung Lee.

Yet this is my fourth venture here, with another scheduled for the autumn.

For the past few months, I have been working in the one rehearsal space in Seoul that is large enough to accommodate this production - a lavish musical about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart is an immense undertaking. We are performing in the sprawling Sejong Theatre (3,000 seats); there are 40 people onstage, and 28 in the pit; backstage an army is scrambling to get more than 30 locations pushed into place, and to change the cast through more than 500 wigs and costumes.

Seoul is mad for musicals, whether homegrown or licensed from abroad. More than 300 theatres serve a population of 10 million, with new venues popping up all the time. This autumn, it is estimated there will be 40 musicals vying for the audience's attention.

This industry has developed over just a decade. The names of some of the largest theatres provide one clue as to how this has been possible (LG Arts Center, Samsung Blue Square). The significant gender imbalance in auditoriums offers another. Last week the Mozart company staged an "audience event" for 100 competition winners; only four were men. The industry thrives on the disposable income of young women, living at home until marriage, who have an insatiable appetite for this art form's combination of intense emotion and immediate spectacle.

Aspects of the creative process are similar to those in Scotland, but there are marked differences. Many roles are triple-cast with major stars, so three well-known individuals rehearse simultaneously, sometimes for 12 hours a day, six days a week; meetings stretching to 2am or 3am are not uncommon. Vans arrive at the rehearsal room laden with drinks and snacks, courtesy of their fan clubs. Where a West End musical might have several weeks of previews, here the first performance is the official opening night.

Then there are the cultural differences. I adore the people of Seoul more with each visit, but every day there is more to understand. As a minor example, I had to restage a scene for another production after incorrectly assuming that a husband and wife might kiss when arriving home. As for cultural references, there is surprisingly little awareness of Western popular art. A mention of Kubrick or even Miley Cyrus can draw a blank. One time I talked about Springsteen to my translator. She had never heard of him, but she was impressed when I mentioned my friend Douglas Maxwell (his play Our Bad Magnet has been a hit here). As long-time Bruce fans, Douglas and I can appreciate the beauty of finding somewhere in the world where we are bigger than the Boss!

There are fears that the market is over-saturated, yet Mozart has broken box office records, securing more than 50 per cent of recent ticket sales (Cats is in second place). What does the life of an 18th Century composer have to offer this culture?

At its heart, this is the story of a father and a son. We first meet Wolfgang as an obedient child touring Europe with his father, impressing the aristocracy. As he grows up, he faces an all-too-familiar dilemma: does he respect the limiting wishes of his father, or does he follow his own instincts and desires? By act two of our production, he has transformed, Bowie-like, and become an independent artist but is forever shadowed by the figure of that dutiful boy, a constant reminder of his failure to live up to his father's image of him.

Korean society revolves around deference to age and seniority. (I don't even know the first name of our producer - everyone calls him "Mr Eum".) In our staging of the climactic conflict between the generations, Wolfgang grabs his father in fury, and then begs for his approval and love. This sequence was filmed recently in our rehearsal room as part of a press call; one journalist published the clip under the title Immoral Mozart.

This is part of the reason why the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in April has had such immense impact on the country's pride. There is a collective sense of responsibility, as if the parents of the nation failed those children.

In the aftermath of the tragedy countless cultural events were abandoned; comedies and soap operas removed from TV; concerts cancelled. Indulging in anything light-hearted has been seen as shameful.

Weeks later, yellow ribbons of remembrance still flutter in the streets; the ceremony for the Korea Musical Awards was called off, and the winners announced online. With more children still to be lifted from the water, the period of public grief continues.

As for Mozart, we're opening three days earlier than planned, as another event was cancelled. There will be a tribute to the ferry's victims at the end of our production when, as manuscript papers litter the stage, 500 lights will rise slowly into the air, pulsating individually.

Mozart opens tomorrow in Seoul's Sejong Theatre

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