Donghoon Shin: a Week at the Semperoper Dresden

Donghoon Shin: a Week at the Semperoper Dresden

Donghoon Shin is one of the three laureates of the second ricordilab international composer competition. An international group of associated partners including the Bamberg Symphony and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will feature these composers in their programmes. A special internship at the Saxon State Opera Dresden will offer the composers exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences and networking opportunities. In this diary, Donghoon Shin tells us about his trip to Dresden that details numerous exciting experiences and unfortunately also includes a threatening situation for his wife and himself.

As a laureate of the ricordilab 2019 I had the precious opportunity to join the Semperoper and observe at first-hand how an opera performance is produced. I kept a simple journal of my experiences at the Semperoper in the period of 24 February to 1 March 2020.

February 23

I took an early morning train from Berlin to Dresden. Upon arriving around 9AM my first impression of Dresden was very different from that of Berlin. Old baroque buildings of the Altstadt bore witness to the city’s cultural and political history. The building of the Semperoper also showed the wounds of the history. I was familiar with was the front side of the house, beautiful in its neo-baroque style. The backstage area and the parking lot in the back of the building were, on the contrary, modern concrete structures. I was told that the new part was rebuilt after it was destroyed by the bombings of World War II. I met Manfred Weiss, artist director of the Semper Zwei, and dramaturg Bianca Heitzer, who briefed me on the week’s schedule. I am looking forward to observing the ‘making of’ an opera.

February 24

I observed the rehearsal of Offenbach’s operetta, “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.” It was the first stage rehearsal with singers, chorus, and orchestra. As the rehearsal progressed the conductor, stage director, singers, and actors discussed and verified each performer’s movements and roles. So many people were involved and making their individual contributions to the whole! This was fascinating to me, since I don’t have much experience with the opera. A composer isolates himself and works at the desk in solitude. Once the piece is finished, if it’s an orchestral piece many people would be involved, but mostly they are musicians and the composer’s communication is limited to the one-to-one contact with the conductor. In the making of an opera, the communication is many-to-many and a lot more people take part in the discussions that shape the performance. The Staatskapelle Dresden, the chorus, and soloists performed at the highest level.

February 25

Upon kind invitation of Manfred Weiss, I went to see the rehearsal of Mischa Spoliansky’s ‘Wie werde ich reich und glücklich?’, which he was directing. Unlike yesterday’s Offenbach rehearsal, this was an ‘action’ rehearsal with the conductor’s piano accompaniment. Yesterday I’d say around 80% of the production was already in place and they were working on the final touches, but in today’s rehearsal of ‘Reich und Glücklich’ they were in the middle of working out the details so I could observe the progress. Overall, the most interesting thing was how actors and singers reacted to the director and choreographer’s instructions, and how this in turn changed their actions on stage. Instructions often prompted democratic and productive discussions, and that made me realise that the opera was made by collaboration.

Picture of Donghoon Shin, Manfred Weiss and Natalie Holtom
Donghoon Shin with staging director Manfred Weiß and choreographer Natalie Holtom

February 27

I want to talk about something non-musical today. I picked up my wife from Dresden central station in the evening and we were walking to the hotel in the Altstadt. Three guys, apparently drunk, suddenly came up very close to my wife and shouted in her ear, “Do you have corona virus?” Their laughter followed. We were clearly experiencing racial bullying towards Asian people. They seemed surprised at our vehement resistance and walked away in quickly. I remembered a recent incident in central London, where a Korean lady got physically attacked by young British men. What if I weren’t there and my wife was walking alone to the hotel, dragging her suitcase? I don’t want to even think about what might have happened. We had a chat with friends who are members of the Dresden Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Dresden and they said they’re worried about the far-right political movements and subsequent rise of racism in their city. As I said already, the first things I noticed in the city were the scars of violence, fascism and the war. Why would we go down the same tragic path?

February 28

I was generously invited to the performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Semperoper. I am amazed by Puccini’s uncanny ability to express the drama in musical structure and his compositional technique. The performance of the Staatskapelle Dresden and the singers could not have been better.

February 29

I attended the general rehearsal of “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein”. Offenbach is an interesting composer. His works appear to be light entertainment at the first glance but are in fact reflections and parodies of our culture and politics. What do the silly characters – the noblemen and soldiers in “Gerolstein” stand for? This operetta is a sarcastic statement against totalitarian authority and violence.

Needless to say, the Semperoper’s new production of “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” was superb. The performance, the mis-en-scéne and the costumes were all fabulous. I just wondered if the message of the composer could have been brought out more clearly. Perhaps this thought was personal, due to the recent incident of a racist attack.

I would like to thank the Semperoper’s generous invitation and the thoughtful organisation of my publisher Ricordi. The week-long programme was an excellent chance to gain insight into the genre of opera, and I came back with a big question to ponder. What can performing arts, especially drama, do in our time? This is an important question for me as I am planning to write my first opera in the coming years. All this experience in Dresden was enough to inspire me to write a chamber opera. On the last day, Manfred Weiß, Director; Daniela Brendel, Ricordi’s Promotion Manager for stage works; and I had a brief meeting to discuss the possibility. The opera will be based on Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Police Rat” which offers profound insight into violence, abuse of power, and the evil as a consequence. I hope to bring the project to life and share these messages with many people.

Photos: Semperoper Dresden (title), Donghoon Shin