The National Theater of Korea (NTOK) is a symbol of both the nation’s independence and its involvement in global culture. In a country that is geographically isolated from the rest of the world, with a language that is spoken nowhere else, and that was moreover a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945, cultivating national culture has high importance. Originally founded in 1950, the NTOK arts complex has been through several changes. It relocated to the current site on Mount Namsan in 1973, at the start of South Korea’s economic upswing.
Of the eight ensembles originally working under the umbrella of the national theatre, five became independent. Today, the NTOK comprises three ensembles. They are the Changgeuk troupe (traditional music-theatre), the national dance company, and the national orchestra. The national ballet ensemble, the choir and the spoken-word drama company, the National Theater Company of Korea, operate independently. Today, the drama ensemble produces and stages its works in the Myeongdong Theater.
Moonrise and sunrise
Visitors climb the stairs to enter the theatre as if it were a temple: Situated on a hill and surrounded by pillars, the NTOK’s main buildings are decidedly reminiscent of the Acropolis – despite the demonstrative modernity, and hint of brutalism, of the 1970s architecture. In its entirety, the complex reflects the cultural ‘schizophrenia’ running through all of Korea’s recent history. While European-style stage arts are practised here, the inspiration for the design of the integrated Haeoreum Grand Theater (Haeoreum is a neologism referring to the sunrise) was drawn from Japan of all places – from the Kabuki theatre of what was then the Japanese national theatre in Tokyo.
When it opened in October 1973, the complex housed a main hall, the Haeoreum Grand Theater, seating 1494 on three levels and with a 1322 m² stage, and a smaller hall (named the Daloreum = moonrise) seating 330. In 1982, an open-air theatre was added, built in an arena style and traditional Korean forms. In 2002 a roof was built over it but not without sliding components so that it is still possible to choose between playing under the stars or with lighting. The building is now known as the Haneul Round Theater. It stands in front of the two main buildings, which are set alongside each other at a 90° angle and share the same stage tower and ventilation system.
Smaller but better
Planning started in March 2017 and building in 2018. Delays were caused by staff shortages and difficulties obtaining materials during the pandemic, and the official opening was postponed to September 2021 – the start of the new season.
The final cost of renovation exceeded that estimated by a full 40 percent, rising to 66 billion Won (some 49 million Euros). But the work was extensive and thorough. First, the main building was completely gutted. Nothing was left of the old structure apart from the outside walls. Absolutely everything, from the entrance hall to the light and sound technology, was newly built and installed to ensure that productions can be presented here using state-of-the-art equipment again, at last. But since traditional arts do not need special technology to be shown to full effect, installing revolutionary equipment was not a number one budgeting priority. Technical director Ho-Seoung Kim says it remains a longer-term goal. But the renovated NTOK does now have immersive 3D sound and a dual revolving stage, with platforms 14 m and 16 m in circumference, which can run in opposite directions. There are also four rising platforms, each 14 x 4 m.
To optimize the sightlines, the seating was reduced from approximately 1500 to 1212. The auditorium was adjusted to correspond to the width of the stage so that there are no longer any visual or acoustic blind spots. So, while the stage was reduced from 23 m to 17 m, the auditorium also made 16 m narrower to ensure perfect views even from all the side seats. This created space for side galleries and sound reflectors. And it meant that the theatre’s productions can now be rehearsed on a standard format stage, making it easier to prepare touring productions.
Traditional reverberation time
From the NTOK’s point of view, the key improvement was made to the acoustics, and is linked to the mission of preserving national culture. Previously, the dry acoustics of the patchily clad hall did not do justice to the sound of traditional Korean music instruments. The reverberation time was only 1.36 to 1.55 seconds. Now the hall is completely clad in wood, the reverberation time has been raised to between 1.5 and 1.7 seconds – a boon for operas and other musical performances. And especially for Korean instruments, whose music can now be heard at its best.
For staging occidental opera, the Haeloreum has an orchestra pit (as it did before), which can be covered over to form an apron. Recorded music can be played via walls of loudspeakers made up of K2 units by L-Acoustics, configured in their immersive L-ISA system. The viewing and listening experience have been optimized for all.
The colour of the hall’s interior also has cultural significance. It is clad in mid to dark brown, marking a compromise between the conventions of western opera and Korean stage art. Because while today’s occidental opera productions call for darkness, Korean theatre is more at home in a warm, bright ambience. Stage lighting is provided by a flexible system without a lighting bridge, and the projectors are controlled using Strand’s EC21 system and an expandable DMX network.
The message to the Korean public is clear: From the start of the 2021/22 season, they can experience the companies at the NTOK in a competitively configured theatre again. Director Cheol-ho Kim hopes that the guest performances that the NTOK ensembles gave in other theatres of the city, which usually show western arts, during renovation will have made the more traditional tinged dance of the National Dance Company and the Changgeuk genre accessible to a broader public, who might now be more likely to visit the NTOK in future. He hopes, especially, to attract the younger generations, who tend to be engrossed in K-Pop. In this spirit, the monumental staircase leading up to the foyer of the Haeloreum was dismantled as part of the renovation work. In 2021, the theatre is less lofty but brighter and more inviting: more light, more sound, more fun.
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