Korean music bewitches the entire world
Even after the show ended, the eyes of the western audience welled up with tears. The show, named <Ukcheok-ga>, ran in Paris last year and all performances were sold out. Since then, audiences in Poland, New York, Chicago and Avignon have been entirely smitten. What are the main factors behind the popularity of this stage show that is even difficult for Korean people to understand?
The mythology of <Sacheon-ga>
On July 9, Chungmu Art Hall Black was packed with people who came to watch the premier show of Pansori Brecht <Sacheon-ga>. The audience came from a variety of countries for the '2013 conference of consul generals' as visitors to witness the 'Korean wave diplomacy'. With the current craze for Korean culture contents, <Sacheon-ga>, a modernized adaptation of pansori, a Korean traditional narrative music, is gaining popularity and is being used for programs that introduce Korean culture in diplomatic circles abroad. Three suspicious gods make a visit to the city of Sacheon in Korea. The three gods are 'gods who are crazy about offerings, donations and face-saving.' They have been wandering about in search of a kind person and finally give money to 'Sun-deok', a chubby person who is called 'An Angel of Sacheon.' After opening a snack restaurant, Sun-deok transforms herself into her vicious older male cousin and criticizes society for its preoccupation with appearances, competition, academic background, money and power.
With English subtitles, <Sacheon-ga> was written and performed by Jaram Lee who holds the record for the youngest person to sing the entire <Chunhyangga> in eight straight hours and is listed in the Guinness World Records. She adapted the epics <The Good Person of Szechwan> of Bertolt Brecht, a renowned representative of 20th century theater in the western world, into a story about 'Sundeok', a chubby jobless girl. The story matches quite well the spirit of our times in Korea. Making a new style pansori and performing it on the global stage were such a challenge for her.
A new, attractive music that fascinated the European audience
With this outstanding pansori work, Lee won the Award for the Best Actress at the 2010 Kontakt. She was invited to perform at prestigious venues such as the Chicago World Music Festival, the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles, APAP Art Market New York, the Theatre National Populaire of France and Festival of Avignon. In particular, in the Lyon show, her performance was so intense that she seemed as if she was 'possessed by a spirit.' In the Avignon festival, she received a standing ovation and her shows were all sold out. <Ukcheok-ga> was written and performed by herself based on another of Bertolt Brecht’s epics, <Mother Courage and Her Children>. The show also received standing ovations in France and Rumania.
Kim Sun-jong, a female main character, has three children by different fathers. During wartime, she works as a merchant to make a living while variously changing her name to Kim Sun-jong, Kim An-na, and Kim Uk-cheok. When seeing her dead son, she coldly says: "It's not my son.' When she has to give her precious cart in return for getting her second son back, she hesitates. This tough, relentless and cold-hearted woman finally is taught a lesson only after seeing her daughter devoting her life to her mom. <Ukcheok-ga> is a adaptation of 'Jeokbyeok-ga' and shows the life of a woman who has suffered hardships in war in the Three Kingdoms era of China.
Why are they so enthusiastic about 'pansori'?
"I want to take a part-time job but it's not easy, because I am fat.
With the average national income of 20,000 dollars and abundant unsold apartments, I am still hungry and I cannot find a small place to lay my head down comfortably.
I want to live nicely and fairly but I can't, because everything is so expensive."
- A dialogue sequence spoken by Sun-deok in <Sacheon-ga>-
This dialogue doesn't seem quite like 'pansori', because it sounds so modern and casual. The traditional pansori features Chinese characters and ancient words, making it difficult for the audience to understand the dialogues. However, pansori as a narrative breaks down the barriers between the music and the audience. <Sacheon-ga> is unlike traditional pansori which often features resentment, often refers to "han", with one 'sorikkun' (the singer) and one drummer. <Sacheon-ga> adds a band with western instruments to the original settings and features the sorikkun changing into numerous different characters. The three gods with glittering garments also add spice to the show. If 'pansori' is based only on 'han', or resentment, the show may not have been able to attract so many foreign audiences. Instead, pansori mainly talks about 'life of people.' The excitement and sorrow of the character resonate well with foreign audiences.
<Ukcheok-ga> was described as 'a great, heart-throbbing show' by the foreign media. Lee sings over 50 songs and plays some 15 characters. Only based on her voice and body, she fascinates the audience with a drum and western instruments such as a bass guitar. Furthermore, with the barrier-breaking features of her show spanning 2 hours and 40 minutes, the show ushers western audiences in a world of catharsis.
Could there be another <Sacheon-ga> and <Ukcheok-ga>?
Both <Sacheon-ga> and <Ukcheok-ga> are based on foreign original works. Sorikkun Jaram Lee started writing her own pansori musicals in 2007 and has been building her reputation as a pansori artist. She refers to the German artist Bertolt Brecht as an 'interesting, cool, bold, and pungent rebel who satires the society', instead of using difficult words such as 'distancing' and 'epics.'
Although the original works were from Germany, it worked in Korea. Likewise, there needs to be an effort to adapt an original work from Korea into a new creation that will appeal to foreign audiences. New works will also need English subtitles and specialists in theater who will help foreign audiences better understand the show just like <Sacheon-ga> and <Ukcheok-ga> did.
This holds especially true for works that cannot be easily understood by the audience such as pansori. In order to achieve the sophistication that will attract global audiences, sincerity should resonate in these works. Korean classical musicians perform according to the strict principle that a single facial expression, dialogue and hand movement should mean something. Their sincerity and talents have the power to break the barriers of gender, age, nationality, and even language. Mainly led by young artists, 'Pansori' as a world music purifies our hearts and minds and its popularity is growing.