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[Herald Interview] Opera in times of COVID-19

Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing hopes to bring KNO to global stage

Dec. 26, 2020 - 15:31 By Im Eun-byel
Conductor Sebastian Lang Lessing poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at the Seoul Arts Center on Dec. 17. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Like most people now, conductor Sebastian Lang Lessing’s plans for the festive period have been thwarted.

The 54-year-old conductor stayed in Korea for more than three months to lead two operas with the Korea National Opera.

The German-born conductor, who has led the Hamburg State Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and other orchestras around the world, has been maintaining a close relationship with Korea‘s state opera company since 2018, taking the baton for operas “Manon” in 2018 and “William Tell” and “Les Contes D’Hoffmann” in 2019.

Lessing was to lead the company’s performances of “La Boheme” in Seoul and Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, in December. The shows were canceled, however, due to the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country.

“We were working on all types of solutions. But the time came when it was too much,” Lessing told The Korea Herald in an interview on Dec. 17 at the Seoul Arts Center, addressing the difficulties of observing social distancing backstage.

Being an opera conductor at times like these has not been easy. Most performances are canceled, and those remaining on the schedule are often streamed online.

As a conductor, Lessing is not so sure about the recent trend of going digital in the performing arts scene, a trend sparked by the worldwide virus pandemic.

“(Streaming) is wonderful but we should not give up on making it clear that nothing can ever replace the live experience. We don’t want people to sit at home and watch something and take it as a substitute for attending a live performance,” he said.

“While it is wonderful to bring your product to more people, the core product of attending a live performance suffers from it. First, the ticket prices are very different. Second, you get close-ups (on livestreams) and the sound is manufactured, everything is balanced out, in a way. But the energy of a live performance is very much different,” he said.

Lessing, who has led the Texas-based San Antonio Symphony for nearly 10 years, is also doubtful about orchestra members shifting toward chamber music these days. “Those musicians are hired to play in an orchestra, and that’s when they come all together, they show absolute strength,” he said.

He also takes issue with the social distancing on stage practiced by orchestras.

“What I find problematic is orchestras being set up in huge distances. … everybody plays under their potential. It is good to do it to keep things alive, but you have to be careful not to let down your objective of artistic excellence and what the standards should be,” he said.

The maestro thinks there may be alternatives to the livestreaming trend.

“We could have done backstage documentaries, the making of ‘La Boheme,’ offering content that you don’t see when you go for the final product. That may be more interesting, not a replacement of the final performance. We need to look into other possibilities of keeping connection without compromising the final product,” he said.

Lessing will return to Korea in the latter half of next year for more productions with the Korea National Opera. He hopes to develop and expand the KNO’s education curriculum, while putting the state-funded orchestra on an international stage.

“Putting the KNO on a global podium of the big opera houses in the world, that will be fantastic. A national company is always an exhibition of national pride that needs an international forum. As much as we have national obligations of setting standards for opera performances in Korea, it is important to be an ambassador of Korean excellence,” he said.

By Im Eun-byel (