Korean-American opera: using deception to fight despair

''The war came early one morning. . . .'' The quiet, opening words of Richard Kim's novel, ''The Martyred,'' capture the sense of prosaic menace that South Koreans have lived with for more than three decades.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that an operatic version of the novel, recently performed for the first time in the vernacular, played to packed houses every night at the huge National Theater here.

The plot hinges on the murder of 12 Christian ministers by North Korean Communists during the war and explores the morality of deception.

A minister whose life was spared finds he must choose - either to tell the truth about the incident and the draining away of his own faith, or to create a web of deception and mystery to maintain his parishioners' ''illusion of hope.''

''All my life I have searched for God . . . but found only man with all his sufferings . . . and death.'' The minister consciously uses deception to fight the despair of his people and to give his own despair the significance of ''a cross to bear.''

The starkly realistic sets - a bombed-out church, a bare government office - and the somber, joyless music, create a shockingly drab, gray wasteland of war.

The opera, like the novel and the war itself, is a Korean-American affair. The music was composed by an American, James Wade, who lives in Korea, and conducted and directed by Charles Rose Perlee, also an American with longstanding Korean connections. The novelist, Richard Kim, comes from North Korea but is an American citizen and has lived in the United States for the past 27 years.

''The weird thing is that the North Koreans were really here,'' Mr. Kim says, looking out toward Seoul's main avenue, today peaceful in the hot summer sunshine. Kim is back in Korea on a Fulbright scholarship, lecturing on English literature at Seoul National University. He recalls a date with a high school girl - a Sunday morning concert - the day the outbreak of war was announced. They walked home through the town; she barefoot, carrying her shoes, which were new and hurting her.

He has earlier memories of life in North Korea. ''Looking back we had a Chekhovian life - landowners with an apple orchard called 'new life orchard'; my parents were intensely Christian.''

There, ''communism began innocuously,'' he recalls, but as the Red Guards infiltrated local government, ''people like us were edged out, purged.''

Along with thousands of others, the Kim family fled to the South, human contraband smuggled across the border; first his father, then Richard - aged 15, alone, hidden on a train among bags of cement without food or water for nearly three days; caught, knocked unconscious, arrested. Finally he got away and make it to Seoul, only to find his father in an American prison.

It took 21/2 years for all his family to escape to the South; his grandfather was one of several Presbyterian ministers - ''the martyred'' - who refused to leave their churches and were shot by the Communists.

Kim went to the United States in 1955. He graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in political science and history, obtained master's degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and the University of Iowa, and became associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

A complex of reasons, political and personal, kept him in America but never quite free from umbilical ties to Korea. ''Living in the States, writing about Korea, was very schizophrenic,'' he says.

Now living in Seoul, he talks about ending his connection with Korea after one last book on the country. Yet doubt creeps into his voice. ''My feelings here are very intense. I think of my generation during the war, I look at the young people here today - I hope . . . they won't repeat history.''

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