Thursday, December 19, 2013

Musical drama highlights 'pansori'


By Kwon Mee-yoo

Theatergoers looking for something different in the sea of imported musicals and Daehangno plays could cut a ticket for "changgeuk.’’ The genre refers to the early-modern form of Korean musical drama that bridged "pansori,’’ Korea’s drum-backed traditional narrative song, with Western theater.

The National Changgeuk Company of Korea is performing "Seopyeonje,’’  a theatrical interpretation of the Lee Cheong-jun novel that follows a blind woman and her quest to perfect her pansori skills, also the subject of a 1993 Im Kwon-taek movie, at the National Theater of Korea.

Directed by veteran thespian Yun Ho-jin, the changgeuk is a safe adaptation of Lee’s novel, which doubles as its strength and weakness.

There is no effort to add depth or re-interpret the relationship between Song-hwa, her obsessive father Yu-bong, who blinds her daughter in believing that would give her emotional depth to mature as a pansori singer, and her drummer brother Dong-ho.

In staying honest to Lee’s text, Yun made it clear that in his Seopyeonje the drama exists for the purpose of setting up the music. The quality of the pansori performances on the stage is worthy of critical acclaim and blends brilliantly with the background music composed by Korean-Japanese musician Yang Bang-ean.

Seopyeonje originally refers to the form of pansori traditionally popular in the western side of the Jeolla region that is slower and more melodramatic than the pansori of other regions. Aside of the movie and changgeuk versions, Seopyeonje was also converted into a Broadway-type show in 2010, although the commercial results were not quite Broadway-like.
Cylinder cases containing a 1896 recording of “Arirang,” known as the oldest existing recording of the song. / Courtesy of National Gugak Center

Seopyeonje requires three different actresses to play Song-hwa at different points of her life. The highlight of the show is when Song-hwa, middle-aged and blind, sings "Simcheongga,’’ a pansori based on the traditional tale of a young woman who is willing to sacrifice her life so her blind father can see again, as her father watchers her.

Pansori master Ahn Sook-sun, who also sung Simcheongga for the movie version of Seopyeonje, performs as the older version of Song-hwa.

"Seopyeonje’’ runs through Sept. 21 at Haeoreum Theater of the National Theater of Korea in Seoul. Tickets cost 20,000 to 70,000 won. English subtitles are provided. For more information, visit or call (02) 2280-4114 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            (02) 2280-4114      end_of_the_skype_highlighting .

Roots of 'Arirang'

Of course, it would be hard for any discussion of Korean traditional music to leave out ''Arirang.’’ Even Seopyeonje, which is mainly intertwined with Simcheongga, felt the need to open the play with a performance of the iconic Korean song.

Arirang, which was listed in the UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity last December, varies in tunes and lyrics by region. A new exhibit at the National Gugak Museum in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, explores the diversity and music value of what is considered as the definitive song of Korea.

Titled "Arirang ― Song of Korea, Song of the World,’’ the exhibit is highlighted by the first-ever recorded version of Arirang. The 1896 recording captures Arirang preformed by Ahu Jong-lik and Ye He-chel, who were Korean students at Howard University, and is currently kept at the Library of Congress in United States.

The museum offers a sampling of the recording, which has been made open to the Korean public for the first time.

The oldest existing sheet music of Arirang, documented by American missionary Homer Hulbert in the monthly magazine The Korean Depository in 1896, is also on display.

There are various regional version of Arirang and some 120 varieties with the refrain "arirang, arirang, arariyo’’ were all registered to the UNESCO. The exhibit gives a brief explanation to the characteristics of local Arirang. The most well-known tune of Arirang, officially titled "Bonjo Arirang,’’ was the song featured in Na Un-kyoo’s 1926 movie "Arirang.’’

The exhibit runs through Feb. 28 next  year. Admission is free. For more information, visit or call (02) 580-3130 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            (02) 580-3130      end_of_the_skype_highlighting

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