Singer bridges the divided Koreas



Asahi Evening News

Chon Wolson sees Carmen, the leading character in composer Georges Bizet's love story, as a determined woman who devotes her energies to getting what she wants.

"She lives freely, and is not one to be manipulated by others," said the Tokyo-born Korean opera singer.

Independent, confident and aware of the effect she can have, the personable soprano seems the most suitable individual to play the part of the protagonist who strives for "freedom and love."

That's because Chon, like Carmen, is the architect of her own fortunes, an artist who has challenged both the social and political obstacles she has faced along the way.

"If I have something I really want to do, I'll just go for it, no matter how difficult it is," she said.

The soprano was the first Korean in Japan to perform on both sides of the 38th parallel, the geopolitical line that divides the Korean Peninsula.

In 1985, she performed in the International Music Festival in Pyongyang in the presence of former North Korean President Kim Il Sung. And, in 1994, she was invited to play the title role in "Carmen" at the Opera House in Seoul, Asia's largest opera theater.

Chon's high profile is seen as a great achievement for Korean residents in Japan. Her success has been a morale booster for a people who often feel they are physically and psychologically isolated from their native countries.

"I thought someday I could perform in North and South Korea when I become an opera singer. I think if you long for something, you will accomplish your objective. Because you eventually work hard toward a goal. Believing in yourself is important," she said.

It is this positive attitude that characterizes Chon's approach to life and to her career.

She was born in Tokyo to a Korean couple from Kyongsangnamdo, a southern region of South Korea. She loved music and dancing even when she was a child. She attended North Korean schools in Tokyo and took lessons in piano and Korean dancing.

"Since I didn't want to be confined to North Korean dancing troupes but wanted to perform internationally in the future, I thought of going to a Japanese conservatory," she said.

Korean schools in Japan are categorized as special institutes. Although some private and public junior colleges and universities recently opened their doors to students of Korean schools, few accepted them 20 years ago. Most graduates of the Korean schools were required to spend another year attending night schools or taking correspondence courses to qualify as graduates of Japanese high schools.

But struggle has become a way of life for Chon. When she was in her second year of senior high school, her father's business collapsed and her family decided to retreat from the city.

"I thought if I left for the countryside with my family, I would have missed the chance of a lifetime to study music. I decided to remain in Tokyo on my own and to keep studying. I committed myself to going to a conservatory straight after graduating from high school."

Staying with a friend of her family, Chon continued to go to school and to take piano lessons. She helped support herself by singing and accompanying herself on piano at restaurants after school.

"It was a very hard time," she said.

Although she was rejected by some schools because she was Korean, her enthusiasm for music finally impressed a junior college affiliated with the highly-competitive Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. Fortunately, her father's business again started to pick up, and she was allowed to go to the school. Although Chon first focused on playing the piano, she switched to singing at the suggestion of one of her teachers, who said her high vocal range made her more suited to singing.

"When I watched an opera, I thought this is what I want to do,'" she said. She explained opera contains all the elements of performing arts that she enjoys--theater, dramatic stage sets, dancing, singing and orchestration.

Working her way through school, Chon pursued further study at the university's arts department and graduated in 1981. After becoming a member of the prestigious Japanese opera company Nikikai, she made her professional debut in 1983.

Since then, Chon has reaped critical acclaim in Japan for her dramatic voice. That success led her to eventually perform in Korea.

Last May, she hosted a large-scale recital in Tokyo. Despite heavy rain, the hall was packed with enthusiastic fans, including many Koreans. The lobby was literally covered with bouquets.

"Being a Korean in Japan isn't easy sometimes for me," she said with sadness. She explained the hardship is not only because of the racial harassment she sometimes endures, but also because of the difficult political situation. Koreans have to choose between North and South Korea in order to take one nationality.

Chon was first registered as a North Korean. But she changed her nationality to South Korean because it was more convenient and opened more doors for traveling and performing in other countries. It was also less limiting. Once, for instance, she was unable to study opera in Italy because North Koreans were not allowed to enter the country in those days.

Although her reasons were strictly pragmatic, Chon's change in nationality did not come without political implications.

When she performed at the festival to celebrate Kim Il Sung's birthday with other musicians from around the world, she was regarded as a North Korean loyalist. But when she became a South Korean and went to Seoul, she was thought to have become converted to the South.

While there was nothing unusual about her changing nationality, both countries tried to take advantage of her reputation to generate propaganda from the move.

"Both are my homelands. I can't choose between the two. I can't imagine the Korean Peninsula with only one of the countries," she said. While she refers to Japan as her kokyo, hometown, she considers the Korean Peninsula her sokoku, homeland, and is very proud of her native culture.

Last year, she attended several events in Japan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japan. And last September, she served as the music director at the One Korea Festival, where Korean residents of Japan sang 50 Korean songs, including many that were popular during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula.

Chon's message is summed up in one of songs she sang at these festivals, "The Mountains and Waters of Koryo, My Beloved] (Koraisanga Waga Ai)," a tune composed by a Korean-American: "Whether in the South or in the North/ Wherever we may be living/ And are we not all of us loving brothers?/ Whether in the East or in the West/ Wherever we may be dwelling/ And are we not all of us loving sisters?"

Even in Japan there are confrontations between North and South Koreans, she said. She finds this sad, but remains determined to stay above the quarreling.

"I'm strong-minded. I'm confident I will not be affected by these conflicts," she said.