It seems quite fitting to watch Cheong (청 / 淸) on parents day (어버이날, 8th of May). After all, Sim Cheong (심청), the heroine of this piece of musical theatre, is the personification of filial piety (효 / 孝)—a girl that is willing to give her own life to save that of her father.
Actually she offers herself to some sailors for the price of a sack of rice that, sacrificed to Buddha, might regain the eyesight of Sim Bong-sa (심봉사), her blind father. But all comes different than expected. Tossed into the wild ocean by sailormen, Sim Cheong gets saved, meets her dead mother, and—hidden in a lotus bud—is sent to the Emperor who makes her his bride. As Empress, Sim Cheong holds a banquet for every blindmen, hoping to rejoin her father. Not only does she succeed, but after a stroke from heaven blind daddy can see again and all is well that ends well. (here is a more detailed plotline)
Changgeuk: Traditional Korean Opera?
Usually associated with pansori (판소리), epic storytelling by a singer and a drummer, this time the story of Simcheong came in the form of changgeuk (창극, lit. “singing drama”), a hybrid form of musical theatre. About a hundred years ago, during the Japanese colonization of Korea and the hasty modernization of politics, society, and the sphere of arts, changgeuk developed at the cross-roads of traditional theatrical practices, newly built Western-style proscenium stages, and the need to adapt symbols of collective identity to the rapidly changing times.
Generally speaking, changgeuk might be best described as “opera with pansori-style singing”, a definition by ethnomusicologist Andrew Killick (Univ. of Sheffield) who published extensively on changgeuk (for starters see this introductory article).
In changgeuk, stories from the repertoire of pansori are staged by pansori-singers. However, instead of a single singer who performs multiple roles as narrator, actor, and host to the audience (in a situation that allows the spectators to react in a variety of ways to what they see and hear), changgeuk features a large cast. In contrast to the scenic minimalism of pansori, the changgeuk-stage is composed of more or less realistic decoration instead of just a straw mat, and the performers usually wear costumes that reflect their respective role, rather than the generic hanbok of the pansori-singer.
As a result, the non-stop performance of pansori (guaranteed by the continuous presence of the one and only singer) is broken down into a number of acts that might include spoken narration, arias, duets, choral chants, as well as group dances.
Killick categorizes changgeuk as “traditionesque”, a new term he coins for art forms that, although related or associated with “traditional” genres (in this case pansori), lack official and/or popular support with regard to the preservation of an original form: “The criterion by which I would asign a practice to one category or the other is the presence or absence of a commitment to protection from change on part of the community that shares the practice.” (See this paper for details)
Unlike “traditional” pansori, an Intangible National Treasure passed on from masters to students in a complicated genealogic system, “traditionesque” changgeuk has been a field of experimentation and subject to constant re-shaping since its beginning. The ambiguous relation between changgeuk and its older brother is perfectly exemplified in a tagline on the English homepage of the National Changgeuk Company (국립창극단): “A Korean music drama with 300 years’ Pansori history”.
Killick covers the history of changgeuk from its beginnings in the early 20th century up until the 1990s. But what about contemporary productions like Cheong? Let’s first sketch the frame that this performance was presented in.
The video trailer already gives some ideas:
Taking a look at the program guide, things become more concrete, but also more confusing… Cheong is marketed in various ways:
- as an enjoyable play for the whole family (“I wish that you, as an audience, could take this performance as an opportunity to once more think about the meaning of family, neighborhood, and our love.”, YOO Young-Dai [유영대], artistic director of the National Changgeuk Company),
- as a “National Brand Performance” (국가브랜드 공연) meant to represent Korean values, traditions, and aspirations, not least to foreign visitors (this November, a special performance for attendants of the G20 summit was held),
- as contemporary music theatre, “a Changgeuk of our times” that relates to “our own unpredictable fate of these days” (Yu). Director of the National Theater KIM Hong-Seung (김홍승) even relates Simcheong’s sacrifice based on filial piety (효 / 孝) to the “young heroes that practiced loyalty (충 / 忠) when dying on the call of the state.” This is a reference to the then (May 2010) quite recent sinking of the ship “Cheonan” in the the no-man waters between North and South Korea which cost 46 seamen their lives in March. This happened just off the coast of Baengnyeong Island (백령도), not far away from Indangsu (인당수), the setting of Simcheong’s leap in the sea which is commemorated by a shrine. (see Kim Hyungyoon’s travelogue in this summer’s Koreana for details)
- as a memorial performance for the 60th anniversary of the National Theatre, representing changgeuk‘s longevivity (which is based more on change than on constancy) and also stressing the collaborative efforts of various ensembles, including the National Changgeuk Company, the National Orchestra (playing traditional instruments), as well as additional dancers .
The various discourses that surround Cheong clearly show that the ambivalence between past and future, characteristic for traditionesque art forms, but also between family entertainment and high art, have not been solved yet—actually that is what makes changgeuk in my eyes very interesting.
So what did the performance look, sound, and fell like?
This video montage gives a few impressions of the play:
After the obligatory taped announcement, to turn off cellphones and not to take pictures, the play starts with an overture that also features choral singing. Then the curtain rises and AHN Suk-son (안숙선), pre-eminent pansori-singer and leading lady of the National Changgeuk Company, comes on stage. With the animation of a virtual reader leafing through an old book as a backdrop projection, she starts telling the familiar story in the narrative style of pansori, beginning with Simcheong’s parents praying for a late child.
But the storytelling lasts only for a few phrases. Then the parents, Sim Bong-sa and his wife Gwak-ssi, enter the stage. Alternating their lines in the typical hoarse voice ofpansori, the story unfolds pretty quickly: Most of the meandering sideways that characterise pansori‘s roots in epic storytelling are omitted. As a result, little Simcheong is born only a few minutes into the play (in an old hut that is the only “realistic” structure in an otherwise rather abstract stage design), and soon her mother is dead, bemoaned, buried and Simcheong has reached the age of sweet fifteen.In many ways, changgeuk shares more with large-size musicals and Western opera than with pansori. There is a lot of light- and video magic going on—e.g. the drowning-scene after Simcheong’s leap into the sea is inserted as a slow motion movie—, spectacular stage machinery like the revolving stage or the large lotus petal that bears Simcheong after her “rebirth” and slowly opens in the middle of a court dance, other mass scenes with singing or dancing groups of seamen, aristocrats, or village people, culminating in Simcheong’s marriage ceremony to the Emperor.
A particularly interesting scene—especially in the context of a “National Brand Performance”—is a potpourri of various versions of “Arirang” (아리랑) sung by the blindmen on their way to the palace party. Various versions of this unofficial National anthem that originated in different provinces in Korea are sung back-to-back and suggest a symbolic unification of the country. (on the colonial career of “Arirang” see E. Taylor Atkins article, or hear a talk).
The most memorable scenes, however, are those that focus on single persons, e.g. Sim Bong-sa’s grieving (before the collective funeral), Simcheong’s jump into the sea, or the reunion of father and daughter in the finale, a moment of intimacy amongst the crowd of blindmen.
While I would argue that pansori puts style over story—even for foreign me it is possible to enjoy a five-hour session without following the plot, thanks to the phenomenal voice acting—, in Cheong it is the other way around: Everything seems to be aimed at presenting a digestable whole, feature-length. This is not to say that the performance is lacking quality—after all, the cast includes some of the finest pansori singers in Korea—, just that the goal is a different one.
Unlike an “orthodox” pansori performance of Simcheong-ga that I witnessed two years ago (and subsequently countless times on video while working on my M.A.), the singing in Cheong sounds much more—in lack of a better term—”melodic”, smoothly fitting in with the instrumental accompaniment. In contrast to the sole drum in pansori, here a whole orchester backs up the singers, sometimes putting the focus more on the synthesized sound than on the individual voice. To be fair, there are also some cacophonic moments, especially when large groups of people sing together.
In general, however, the earthy, bodily, lively qualities of pansori performance have to make way for what could be called “high gloss tradition”: On a far-away stage, people dressed in ready-made hanboks make grand gestures, emotions are communicated by large-scale formations, voices are amplified and underscored, and comic relief mainly takes the form of slapstick.
The actor-singers tend to be subjugated under the larger storyline. Not surprisingly, it was only as the end-credits rolled down that I realised an old acquaintance of mine had taken part in the performance: CHOI Yeong-gil (최영길), star of my M.A. thesis—as one of the coffin bearers. During the curtain call I could spot him, finally.
Cheong is not so much about participating in an inclusive theatrical event, a close encounter with foreign voices that may lead to a communion of spectators and singer. Unlike pansori, this changgeuk stresses the storyline that consequently is reduced to its core, spelled out both in Korean and English in the form of subtitles.
In fact, I was surprised to hear one sole chuimsae (추임새), a call of encouragement which—by the dozen—is a staple in successful pansori performances. It seems as if the transformation of oral literature into a showcase of “Korean” imagery cuts the affective connection between the happenings on stage and the audience (the “Arirang”-scene where a murmur went through the crowd was a notable exception), possibly undermining the intended effect.
Then again, replacing temporary individual relations with more timeless ways of representing an “imagined community” is quite fitting for a National Brand Performance.
Whether the extended final applause was due to accumulated yearning to give feedback or to the cheer size of the cast, I could not say. I did join it, though.
— 8 May 2010 (土)
- Cheong, National Changgeuk Company, dir. by KIM Hong-Seung, libretto by PARK Sung-Whan, National Theater of Korea, Main Hall “Hae”, 2010-05-08 (Sat.), 15–18 h.
- 〈청〉 (淸), 국립창극단, 연출 김홍승, 대본 박성환, 국립극장, 해오름극장, 2010년 5월 8일 (토), 15시~18시까지.