The modernization of changgeuk is well under way. Its revival as “pansori opera” is powered in no small measure by a change in nomenclature that embraces, rather than diverges from, its origins. Moreover, through bold experiments that break away from the traditional content and form, pansori is being reborn amid enthusiastic response from audiences of all ages. At the center of this renaissance is the National Changgeuk Company of Korea.
A scene from “Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King” directed by Achim Freyer, a renowned German opera director. Standing tall in a skirt three meters high, the virtuoso pansori singer Ahn Sook-sun performs the role of narrator. The first outcome of the National Changgeuk Company's attempts to modernize the folk musical, changgeuk, it was staged in September 2011 at the National Theater of Korea.
Pansori is a traditional Korean vocal art, described as musical storytelling, that has been designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property by the Korean government and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The staging of pansori is quite simple. It is performed by just two people: one singer, the sorikkun, who tells the story through song aided only by a fan held in one hand, and one drummer, the gosu, who provides accompaniment and cues changes in mood and rhythm by the beat of a double-headed barrel drum. The story is mainly sung, interspersed with narratives (aniri), and enhanced by facial expressions and dramatic gestures (ballim).
There is another essential element without which pansori is not complete: loud interjections, called chuimsae, that punctuate the performance. These exclamations are shouted out at certain points in the narrative by the drummer or by members of the audience to accentuatethe mood of a scene, applaud the singer’s skills, or comment on the story.
Because it is in essence a solo operatic performance, pansori is almost wholly dependent on the singer’s capability. In the past, pansori artists would practice under a waterfall. In the pansori world, it is said that if your singing cannot be heard over the thunderous roar of a waterfall then you have not “attained the sound.”
Decline of Pansori, Rise of Changgeuk
Pansori singing, a form of folk entertainment rooted in the ages-old ritual chanting of shamans, began to spread widely among the common people around the late 17th century in the mid-Joseon period. By the mid-19th century, it had reached its height in popularity not only among the masses but also the yangban elite 28 Koreana Spring 2016 class, thanks to a cadre of virtuoso singers. Those who performed before the king were even bestowed with official titles.
As a result of various internal and external factors, pansori thereafter entered a period of decline. Instead of a small number of prominent singers, there were many mediocre performers who soon fell out of favor with audiences. With the introduction of novel forms of entertainment, such as “New School” Japanese theater (shinpa geki, or sinpageuk in Korean), Peking opera, and modern Western theater, as well as the construction of Western-style theaters by the turn of the 20th century, these trends became more evident.
The most remarkable development at that time was the emergence of a new genre of vocal performance which featured two or more singers. This was an advanced version of pansori, called changgeuk, which can be defined as musical theater. The first changgeuk performance, a work titled “The Silver World” (“Eunsegye”), was written by Yi In-jik and staged in 1908 at Wongaksa Theater in Seoul, which marked the beginning of modern Korean theater. The number of changgeuk performers gradually increased and as this new musical theater was performed in realistic settings at Western-style theaters, it quickly developed into a comprehensive performing art. Still, it failed to flourish due to a lack of creative materials, among other reasons.
Evolution of Changgeuk
Changgeuk languished in obscurity for a long time, but in the last few years some notable changes have taken place. While changgeuk had been considered an art genre that appealed mainly to middle-aged and elderly audiences, a new crop of younger fans, mostly opera and theater lovers, have recently been filling seats. Changgeuk is enjoying a revival, thanks to a string of creative works featuring fresh interpretations and stylish stage settings. This renaissance, led by the National Changgeuk Company, a resident troupe of the National Theater of Korea, is occurring around three key initiatives.
First, pansori through new eyes: Of the 12 original pansori classics, the five that remain intact today — “Simcheong-ga” (“Song of Sim Cheong”), “Chunhyang-ga” (“Song of Chunhyang”), “Heungbuga” (“Song of Heungbu”), “Jeokbyeok-ga” (“Song of the Red Cliff”), and “Sugung-ga” (“Song of the Undersea Palace”) — are being reworked as changgeuk by prominent Korean and foreign directors who have no experience with the genre. Second, cross-cultural interaction: Foreign classical plays are being adapted into changgeuk.
A scene from “Andrei Serban’s Different Chunhyang,” directed by Romanian-born American opera and theater director Andrei Serban. This performance, featuring rising young pansori artist Lee So-yeon, was held in November 2014 at the National Theater of Korea.
The enthusiastic response of contemporary audiences convinces us that changgeuk is no longer
an old-fashioned form of entertainment. While maintaining the dignity of traditional performing
arts, it keeps up with tthe times by communicating with today’s audiences.
These two approaches have succeeded in drawing attention from those Koreans who are more familiar with Western theater than their native traditional performing arts. Moreover, changgeuk reinterpreted through the eyes of foreign artists and Western classics shaped with the aesthetics of Korea’s traditional musical theater have made it easier for people of all backgrounds to enjoy this indigenous musical genre.
Third, updating the classics: The seven pansori classics that are only partially handed down, such as “Byeon Gangsoe Taryeong” (“Song of Byeon Gangsoe”) and “Baebijang Taryeong” (“Song of Secretary Bae”), have been boldly reinterpreted and reconstructed in ways to reinforce the dramatic aspects of changgeuk. The synergy realized through these three approaches is spearheading changgeuk’s revival and evolution into a contemporary and more universal art form. The enthusiastic response of contemporary audiences convinces us that changgeuk is no longer an oldfashioned form of entertainment. While maintaining the dignity of traditional performing arts, it keeps up with the times by communicating with today’s audiences.
A scene from “Medea,” a changgeuk version based on Euripides' classical Greek tragedy of the same title, performed at the National Theater of Korea in May 2013. Featuring Park Ae-ri of the National Changgeuk Company in the title role, the show was acclaimed for “conveying the essence of Greek tragedy in Korean folk musical style.”
Three Groundbreaking Works
This new-style changgeuk was launched with the performance
of “Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King” by the National Changgeuk
Company, which, after much preparation, opened in September
2011 at the National Theater of Korea. It was the first outcome of
the “Changgeuk of World Master’s Choice” program, under which
eminent theater figures from overseas are invited to reinterpret
changgeuk works in new ways. Achim Freyer, a renowned opera
director from Germany, was the first guest artist invited to work on
a story that he would later develop into a pansori opera.
Freyer’s interpretation and staging were totally new to local
changgeuk audiences. The original story, “Song of the Undersea
Palace” (“Sugung-ga”), is a well-known fable. The Dragon King of
the sea is seriously ill. When he hears that a rabbit’s liver can cure
him, he sends his loyal retainer, the turtle, to the land to lure a rabbit
to his underwater palace.
The unknowing rabbit arrives at the
palace but soon realizes what’s happening and tricks the king into
letting him return to the land,
where he says he had left his
liver, and manages to escape.
“Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon
King” is a satire of the conflict
between predators and prey; it
portrays the turtle as a worldly
character eager to curry the
king’s favor and thereby gain
power, the rabbit as a nimblewitted
hero who works hard to
prevail over all kinds of hardship,
and the Dragon King as a
ruler who will use all methods
and means to prolong his life.
On stage, the undersea palace
had a ceiling covered in plastic
bottles, decrying the environmental
pollution in the world
today. Freyer, also famed as an expressionist painter, designed all the backdrops, as well as the
costumes and masks of the performers.
The satirical and humorous content, which has long been considered
a defining characteristic of pansori, was reworked to appeal
to contemporary audiences. For example, in the scene where the
Dragon King orders the rabbit’s portrait to be painted, a parade of
renowned artists, including Kim Hong-do, Ai Weiwei, Andy Warhol,
Albrecht Dürer, and Pablo Picasso, appears. Changgeuk, a genre
that might have come across as arcane to younger audiences, has
been dressed in all-new clothes. This new form of performance has
thus been re-branded as “pansori opera.”
A scene from “Madame Ong,” premiered in 2014 as part of a project to restore seven pansori classics. The first pansori opera directed by Koh Sun-woong, it is to date the National Changgeuk Company’s biggest hit with repeat runs scheduled this year.
“Andrei Serban’s Different Chunhyang,” another product of the “Changgeuk of World Master’s Choice” program, opened in November 2014 at the National Theater’s Small Hall Dal. As the title indicates, this pansori opera was directed by Andrei Serban, a Romanian- born American opera and theater director who is active in the United States and Europe. It is based on the pansori classic “Song of Chunhyang” about the love between Yi Mong-ryong, the son of a local magistrate, and Seong Chun-hyang, the daughter of a retired gisaeng (professional entertainer). Although this is basically a story about love across social classes, Serban depicted Chun-hyang as a heroine who is not afraid to risk death to remain true to her love. In contrast, Mong-ryong is not quite as pure of heart. As the son of a high-ranking official, he falls in love with Chun-hyang, who comes from a lower social class, but after weighing the losses and gains from such a relationship he chooses to forget her.
The staging was rather radical. On each side of the stage stands a cold metal spiral structure, colored black, while the floor is covered with sand and water is used to delineate a stream. Video imagery was used to great effect, telling the traditional folktale with background images of the two lovers dressed in traditional costumes, while onstage Mong-ryong is a young man working on a laptop.
The third groundbreaking work is “Song of the Red Cliff,” directed by Lee So-young, a noted Korean opera director and artistic director of the Korean National Opera, which opened in September 2015 at the main hall of the National Theater. Based on the Battle of Red Cliffs episode from the ancient Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the story deals with the retreat of the great warlord Cao Cao along Huarong Trail. Lee turned the story into a political satire. The original pansori work features countless heroes and generals who show off their courage in battle, but Lee turned it upside down to emphasize the plight of the common people who die in war, nameless and unremembered.
The stage art was particularly striking. A drum rises up from the orchestra pit and supports the stage. On the stage, there is a single simple structure in the shape of a giant fan. The fan is old and the paper tattered, exposing the bare ribs. The screen at the back of the stage shows a traditional pansori singer, with a fan in hand, performing to the beat of the drum. The fan-shaped structure takes on various forms as it turns or changes position, becoming a hill on which Cao Cao stands to command his troops in battle, the house of Zhuge Liang where Liu Bei visits three times to recruit him, a warship, or a bird. As the scenes unfold, ink wash painting images of bamboo, dots, lines, planes, and the mythical peach blossom land are projected onto the stage floor and the screen in the rear. Amidst these simple yet highly symbolic sets, master Song Soon-seop’s solos and the chorus of other singers emit a dynamic energy.
Other Noteworthy Achievements
Work is also under way to restore the seven pansori classics that have been handed down incomplete, including “Byeon Gangsoe Taryeong” (“Song of Byeon Gangsoe”), which has been reborn as “Madame Ong.” Directed by Koh Sun-woong and staged in June 2014, it shifted the focus away from Byeon Gangsoe, the man with the legendary libido, to highlight the inner world of his devoted wife Ongnyeo. “Madame Ong” became the first production in the Nation-al Changgeuk Company’s history to have a run of sold-out shows (totaling 23).
In November 2011, the classical Korean novel about two sisters “Janghwa Hongryeon-jeon” was adapted into a thriller titled “Janghwa Hongryeon,” directed by Han Tae-suk. The plot is based on a murder that takes place in a middle-class housing estate with a park and pond, chillingly depicting the egotism and apathy prevailing in today’s society.
In a different experiment, the classical Greek tragedy “Medea” was successfully converted into a changgeuk piece. It was directed by Seo Jae-hyeong and opened in May 2013. In March 2014, the hit movie “Seopyeonje” was staged as a pansori opera of the same title, directed by Yun Ho-jin. Then in March 2015, at the request of the National Changgeuk Company, the Japanese-born Korean director Chong Wishing (Chong Ui-sin) adapted Bertolt Brecht’s
“Caucasian Chalk Circle” into a pansori opera, which was hugely popular.
A scene from “Song of the Red Cliff,” directed by Lee Soyoung, performed in September 2015 at the National Theater of Korea. It was acclaimed for the synergic effect created by the simple yet highly symbolic sets and master pansori singer Song Soonseop's powerful solos.
Preservation vs Modernization
The key figures behind these efforts to modernize changgeuk are Ahn Sang-ho, director of the National Theater of Korea, and Kim Sung-nyo, artistic director of the National Changgeuk Company. Kim believes that “pansori must be faithfully preserved as a traditional Korean vocal art, while changgeuk must be continuously revised and adapted to the times.” To this end, she plans to continue the project of commissioning illustrious directors to reinterpret the 12 original pansori classics from fresh perspectives.
With the rebirth of changgeuk as pansori opera, Korea’s indigenous musical theater is now being introduced to international audiences. “Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King” earned high acclaim for its staging at the Wuppertal Opera Theater in Germany in December 2012. This April, “Madame Ong” will be performed in Paris at the invitation of the Theatre de la Ville. Surely, the day is not far away when pansori opera can take its place, alongside Peking opera and Japanese kabuki, on the global stage.