UC Santa Cruz music faculty travel to Asia over spring break for Korean premiere of professor's first opera

Three UC Santa Cruz music faculty had a rather unusual experience over spring break.

David Evan Jones, Nicole Paiement, and Brian Staufenbiel traveled to Seoul, Korea, to oversee the Korean premiere of the chamber opera Bardos, for which Jones wrote the music and libretto. Bardos appeared in a double bill with Back to the Origin by renowned Korean composer Chan-Hae Lee, whose work was performed last spring at UCSC's Pacific Rim Festival.

Both operas were produced by the Seoul Contemporary Opera Company and staged on March 23-24, before an audience of approximately 1,000 people at Hoam Art Hall in downtown Seoul. Paiement, professor of music at UCSC, served as guest conductor and Staufenbiel, a UCSC music lecturer, functioned as guest stage director. Bay Area mezzo-soprano Lisa van der Ploeg played the central role in Bardos, and Olympia, Washington, choreographer Doranne Crable directed the production's Butoh dancers.

"It was an adventure, an amazing experience," said Jones, who has taught music theory and composition at UCSC since 1990. "We kept recalling the movie Lost in Translation--there were so many interesting misunderstandings. We came to the country knowing no Korean, and though we did learn a few words, most of our communication was in English and German. Our hosts were extremely gracious in facilitating the communication that made the production possible."

Although the performances were booked last November, advance rehearsal for Jones's opera was literally impossible because most of the performers resided in Korea. In addition to the solo mezzo-soprano, the cast included a 14-member women's choir, three percussionists, an organist, pianist, actress, and three dancers. Adding to the pressure was the fact that Paiement and Staufenbiel acted as conductor and stage director for the other production as well. As a result, the UCSC contingent embarked upon a non-stop rehearsal schedule from the moment of its arrival in Asia.

"We virtually did not get off the university campus where we were staying in Seoul for the first eight days," Jones recalled. "Along with the casts of both operas, we just stayed and worked. Nicole and Brian broke the production up into parts and put it back together again, while I advised and assisted in any way I could. It was an extremely narrow time frame in which to prepare two staged operas--both casts worked hard to pull it together."

Jones said he was inspired to write his opera by a vivid dream he had after his mother died. The title Bardos refers to the stages that the soul passes through after death according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The opera was sung in English and Latin, with two monologues for an actress that were delivered in Korean, translated from the original English. This created a bit of a problem as Jones and Staufenbiel attempted to coach the actress in rehearsals.

"She didn't speak English," Jones recalled. "So the singer would translate our English instructions into German, which the Korean pianist would in turn translate into Korean for the actress. Of course, our comments were based on guesses about the pacing of the text and how it would read in Korean culture as compared to American culture," he added. "We just hoped our instructions-such as to slow down, or to emphasize certain emotional states--were understood and carried the meaning we intended for the Korean audience."

Jones noted that the final performances were quite well-received, but said the real highlight of the trip was the process of bringing together diverse cultural and professional styles in a collaborative effort. Staufenbiel, director of UCSC's opera program, agreed that despite the frenetic schedule, he would do it all over again.

"Korea was an extraordinary experience, a mixture of ancient society and modern Western culture-palaces and shrines, neon lights, and cell phones," Staufenbiel said. "And the people were wonderful to work with-talented, dedicated, and kind."