“The Last Empress” 20th Anniversary Performance

Last night I attended the 20th anniversary performance of director Yun Ho Jin’s first smash hit musical, The Last Empress, at Portrait_of_Empress_Myeong_Seongthe Opera Theatre at the Seoul Arts Center. Technically speaking, it’s a fantastic visual smorgasbord, and the theatre geek in me internally squealed with glee watching the rotating raked circular stage (two concentric platforms rotating in opposite directions created endless possibilities) and the pneumatically driven split levels that created two stacked stages. The lighting and costumes—lavish. The music? What it lacked in memorability, the performers made up for with their virtuosity, especially Kim Hyosun, who played the empress that night. At the very end of the finale, she effortlessly yet powerfully punches a high C*, a fifth above the rest of the chorus, that rings out across the opera theatre with brilliant clarity. All the performers, designers, and crew deserve resounding accolades for the production. It was a stunning feast for the senses, and at 140 minutes, it didn’t feel too long, despite the fact that my elementary Korean language proficiency prevented me from following the story very closely.
But even so, I found the script disappointing. For a musical purportedly about the Empress Myeongseong of Korea (1851-1895), this show did very little to develop such a potentially impressive and intriguing character. Having done some background reading before attending the show, I was looking forward to learning more about the formidable queen’s rise to power and self-education, the way she shaped her court in concert with her husband, crafting smart policies to protect Joseon’s sovereignty while also pushing into modern global society through trade, both in cultures and in goods, seeing clearly Joseon’s necessary relationships with China and Japan, and then finding ways to play them strategically off of one another. But instead, Myeongseong’s influence doesn’t really get any stage time until the very end of the first part, right before intermission, where a triadic scene shows Myeongseong arguing against the Daewongun (who represented Japanese allegiance within the court), while her husband swings indecisively between the two. But there was no build-up to her ability to argue so persuasively, no indication that she was more than a kind of conscientious angel who descended upon Korean history with a graceful presence, representing the strength and integrity of the nation. Who was Myeongseong the person? Who was the girl who married that milktoast king Gojong at the age of 16 because everyone thought she’d just make a good wife, but then flouted all expectations by refusing the parties and jewels befitting a queen, instead sequestering herself in her room to read history and political theory, and then finally persuading officials to join her and creating her own court? All while in her early twenties? How can this woman–who in order to accomplish what she did in her short life, must have been a kind of genius–be watered down into a pretty angel? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what The Last Empress seemed to do. Despite the title, the musical is not about Myeongseong at all; instead, it’s a quick succession of scenes, kind of like a slide show, illustrating the events that led to Myeongseong’s assassination. This leads to a contradiction, however, in that there is a lack of motivation (at least that I could see) on the part of the Daewongun to assassinate the queen. Why was she so threatening? The musical gives no indication of the kind of serious danger she posed for the Japanese. Instead, we get sweet scenes showing the queen learning French and then teaching it to her son; she meets with ladies of foreign courts; she greets foreign dignitaries at the side of her husband. But what about the fact that she actively encouraged foreign missionaries to build schools, and started an English language school inside the palace? What about her founding of Ehwa Women’s College, and her progressivism concerning gender equality, and her tolerance of new religions in the country? What about her dealings with the Chinese over and against the Japanese to train her soldiers in modern warfare and weaponry? Myeongseong didn’t just entertain foreign dignitaries because it was quaint to do so; she rapidly modernized Korea and strengthened its economic clout in ways that threatened the imperial ambitions of Japan, who saw Korea as a gateway to the rest of the East. There is so much important and intriguing historical material that the script glossed over, resulting in a hasty summary of events rather than a story focused on a character. In consequence, the assassination scene, to this audience member’s eyes at least, seemed randomly brutal and cruel (it was, in actuality, quite brutal and cruel; the invaders did not know which woman in the court was Myeongseong, so they killed any woman that might match her description), instead of a direct attack on a political figure who stood in the way of Japan’s imperial progress.
The finale shows the spirits or ghosts of the murdered women, with Myeongseong as their leader, rising and marching forward toward the audience, singing a stirring anthem (“Rise, People of Joseon”). Dressed all in white robes, it seemed to me they could represent many things: not only the spirits of these particular women, but the ancestors of Joseon, calling upon contemporary Koreans to push on with their mission of freedom and political sovereignty. But the women were also like guides or angels, martyrs and/or saints whose purity and innocence were to serve as examples for the kind of strong-hearted, pure patriotism that should continue to lead the nation, despite any adversity. They were also the sacrificial victims of historical circumstance, innocent lambs who had been led to the slaughter. It was a highly emotional scene, and the audience responded in kind, standing in ovation, clapping and cheering; I noted more than one tear being shed. And yet, for all the stirring of religious and patriotic fervor, I felt a lot was missing. This musical managed to reduce Myeongseong and her court attendants as well to empty icons or representations that could be filled with a generalized patriotic sentiment, rather than explore them as the significant political players they were in a decisive moment not only in Korean history but in the history of contemporary East Asia and its rising global significance. It seems ironic to me that for a show that expends so many resources on such a technically brilliant performance, it barely does its subject matter justice.
*This is my best guess; I don’t have perfect pitch!