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Pansori at the Lincoln Center Festival 2003

By Perry Bialor


Kim Soo-yeon performs Heungboga, a tale of two brothers, one virtuous, one greedy, who get what they deserve after their parents leave them an inheritance. Photo: Marc Enguerand.

The Lincoln Festival 2003 presented five performances of Pansori, a Korean form of story telling, each presented by a single virtuoso, male or female, who combines song, arioso, narration, gestures and dance-like body movements accompanied only by a drummer who sits to one side and strikes and taps the drum-skin and rim in a dialogue with the Pansori performer. Each of the five Pansori was performed by a different artist well-known in Korea. The five Pansori constitute all that survived of the twelve epic tales that still were occasionally performed until the 1930s (when two of the great Pansori artists died during the nearly 45-year Japanese occupation of Korea during which the occupiers suppressed everything authentically Korean including the language), taking seven of the tales with them to the grave. This is an oral tradition passed on from master to acolyte, so that performers today are often associated with one or more particular Pansoris that they learned from several masters. It can be a grueling mastery.

The performances were given at John Jay College Theater from July 16 through July 20. In the order in which they were presented they were: Heungboga, Sugungga, Shimcheongga, Jeokbyeokga, and Chunhyangga. I attended only the 2nd (3 ½ hrs.), 3rd (4 hrs.) and 5th (5 ½ hrs.), each with one ten-minute intermission.

The performers appeared in traditional Korean dress, women in the colorful high-waisted hanbok, men in white or jade-colored hanbok and short coat with woven black horse-hair wide-brimmed, tall-crowned hats. At intermission, the Pansori singers changed costumes (not a tradition but for comfort). All the performers have appeared in various European, American and Asian cities and festivals at various times and, in Korea, are teaching at universities, members of the National Performing Arts Group or the Traditional Performing Arts Group, and have made numerous recordings (some of which were available for purchase at the performances).

The Pansori is structured episodically, like scenes in a play, so that after each episode, some of them quite virtuosic, the audience may respond with applause and the performer occasionally takes a sip of whatever liquid (tea, water or something stronger?) it was in the tea service placed to the right of the drummer.

My memory of having attended Pansori at the Traditional Music Institute in Seoul some years ago (when I fell in love with the art) is vague, but my impression is that there are few hiatuses for applause. Moreover, the Korean audience was much more vocal in its encouraging responses to the singer, e.g., "wonderful," "excellent." But traditional Pansori is meant to be performed at festivals outdoors and can take a whole day, or more, to finish. I assume that the performance structure was somewhat modified for presentation to Western audiences.

What do I mean by "virtuosic"? The quality of voice in Pansori is throaty and requires great force and endurance. There are softer passages, but the general quality is harsh and piercing. Moreover, the voice changes according to the character "speaking." The performer, aided only by a fan prop in the right hand and a handkerchief in the right to wipe the lips from time to time (much like Louis Armstrong's voice and need of a hankie). The fan serves many functions. It can be swept, snapped, pointed, held like a baby, or used like a sword.

All performances were in Korean and accompanied by supertitles. Supertitles are a two-edged sword. There is always some loss of attention to the flow of performance when having to shift focus up and down, but the stories required understanding not only of the outlines but of the details of the tales. The poetry and the humor were in the details. My solution was to spend as little time as possible on reading the "translation," even at the expense of losing some of the poetic style and amazing, thesaurus-like elaboration of birds, flowers, trees, animals, and forces of nature that punctuated the travelogues and various listings.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but pay closer attention to the supertitles in the final pansori. They were both advertently and inadvertently amusing. The translator evidently was much influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan and Alice in Wonderland as well as British slang. We find: "Oh frabjous day, Calah, Calay," "beamish girl," "that is more than sooth," and "mate." There were many more, but not having written them down, they disappeared from memory like dreams on waking.

There were times that no translation was provided during some narrations or ad lib remarks, as the performer often directly addressed and involved the drummer and, occasionally, the audience. These were often times when Koreans laughed. At times, some Koreans in the audience added encouraging utterances, like those of the drummer, similar to those of a gospel audience but more restrained. Much to my surprise, the audience included younger Koreans (including Korean-Americans) as well as the anticipated elderly. I attribute that to a revival in interest in Pansori in part a response to the wildly popular motion picture Sopyonje by Korea's leading director Im Kwon-taek (cf. Kurosawa).

Kim Il-goo performs Jeokbyeokga, the Korean equivalent of Homer's Iliad; it tells the story for the Battle of Chihpi in China (208 A.D.). Photo: Marc Enguerand.

Heungboga was performed by Kim Soo-yeon. As I did not attend that performance, I pass on to the 2nd Pansori presented. Sugungga was performed by Cho Tong-dae, portly and graceful, accompanied on drum by Lee Tae-baek replaced by Kim Chung-man in the second part of the program (both also accompanied the other Pansori singers). This Pansori is like an extended Aesop fable. It is the story of a tortoise who volunteers to bring a hare back from dry land to the underwater kingdom of the Dragon King who is ill and, according to a wise man, only the liver of a hare can effect a cure. Though reluctant, the hare is persuaded by the tortoise's promises of high status and the rewards of paradise in the kingdom. When the hare realizes that he has been tricked and is about to be slaughtered for his liver, he conveniently remembers that he left his precious, much-desired liver in the forest for safe-keeping and must return to fetch it. He even taunts the king to kill him to see whether he is telling the truth, but once the king has a dead rabbit without a liver, then what? So, the hare is returned to dry land, where he immediately hops away into the forest exclaiming that the hare is fool and his king must be an even bigger fool to believe that a liver can be plucked out and then put back in, but he also expresses his admiration for the loyalty of the tortoise to his king. The tortoise then has other adventures, but these seem tacked on as they have no relation to the rest of the story. Finally, Cho Tong-dae said "And I am Cho Tong-dae, and I am tired." At first, I thought his amusing ending was indicative of this genial man, but I was informed that it is not unusual that a performer, having performed for hours, with lunch break for the audience, may cut the presentation short with "I am tired, please come back tomorrow."

Simcheongga was performed by Kim Young-ja. It is a story of a girl who devotes her life to caring for her blind father. In desperation for a cure, the poverty-stricken, old man promises to donate 300 bags of rice to the temple, if, as a monk claims, the Buddha will reward him by restoring his sight. Of course, he has no way of being able to do so, as he quickly remembers, but it is too late-the promise has already been given to Buddha. Simcheong, the girl of the story, learns that some sailors about to leave port are searching for a virgin to sacrifice to the Dragon King of the Sea to ensure their safe and prosperous voyage. She offers herself in exchange for the 300 bags of rice, which the sailor accept. After being thrown into the sea, she finds herself in the palace of the Dragon King, who takes pity on her for her filial piety, has her returned to land wrapped in a lotus flower which is then taken to the emperor's palace. The lotus bud opens; the emperor falls in love with her; they are married and she becomes empress. In order to find her father, she holds a feast to which all the blind men of the kingdom are invited to which her father also comes [the Buddha was not a reliable partner in the deal for the old man is still blind]. He is shocked to hear his daughter's voice and regains his sight. [Filial piety is apparently more reliable than the Buddha-is that a Confucian jibe?].

Ms. Kim Young-ja is a full-bodied 51 years old (though her round face and voluminous hanbok may be adding a few pounds to her appearance). Her nuanced voice and her dance-like "syncopated" movements I found entrancing-the sudden lift of the shoulder, the arms extended like willow branches in the wind. One can see that she must be a wonderful salpuri dancer.

I missed Jeokbyeokga performed by Kim Il-goo. His Pansori is, according to the program, "the East Asian equivalent of the Iliad." I sorely regret having missed that one. The final Pansori, and the longest, was Chunhyangga, the most popular tale in Korea and the subject of many Korean films, including Im Kwon-taek's recent Sopyonje. It was performed by Ms. Ahn Suk-sun, who is 54 years old but looked not a day over 35. In 1997 she was designated important Cultural Property #23. Her style was quite different from that of Ms. Kim. She seemed much more down-to-earth; she ad libbed, and the (Korean) audience loved it. She occasionally addressed the audience with amusing remarks and also used the drummer as a partner in a one-sided "dialogue," often gesturing toward him rather than directly to the audience. One of her remarks (told to me afterwards) was "Ah, god, you are so wonderful tonight." She seemed to be enjoying herself-and so did the audience.

Chunhyang is the story of a faithful wife (though I was never sure whether she was a wife or a fiancée). Chunhyang is a gorgeous daughter of a courtesan. Definitely lower class. Yi Mong-ryong is the son of a nobleman and magistrate in Jeolla province who falls in love with her at first sight and she him. As a proper marriage was impossible between classes, they are secretly, unofficially wed. Yi must go to Seoul for exams (for appointment in the Confucian bureaucracy). His father is transferred out as well. Chunhyang is left behind. A new magistrate is appointed. He turns out to be a monster of avarice and licentiousness. He demands that Chunhyang submit to him. She refuses. He has her tortured and imprisoned. Meanwhile, Yi has passed the exams with flying colors and has been appointed royal secret inspector [by the way, the Pansori is chock through with slangy expression that attempt to convey the fact (I was told by a Korean) that the tale is told in Jeolla dialect that many Koreans consider backwoods and somewhat funny].

Chunhyang is near death in solitary with only her mother to console her (even the guards pity her but are helpless). Yi returns dressed as a beggar, the better to root out the corruption and other problems he has been hearing about the magistrate and his yangban toadies and, of course, to claim his Chunhyang, whom he is unaware is imprisoned and near death.

Then comes a "recognition scene" with the mother (and, later, with Chunhyang) worthy of Sophocles-though, personally, I hate both recognition scenes. I shall leave the rest of the story to your imagination. A hint, however: it ends in pandemonium, like Odysseus slaying the suitors on his return to Ithaca. And Yi and Chunhyang live happily every after.

Taking a page from Cho Tong-dal, I am Perry Bialor, and I am tired. [Bialor]

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