Naturally, I was excited. I had not attended a full-length pansori performance in what seemed like ages, then, on a moment’s notice (or, rather, a note on the homepage of the Pansori Hakhoe), I decided to go down to Daejeon, the capital of South Chungcheong Province (충청남도, Chungcheongnam-do), situated right in the heart of South Korea. I left office early, around lunchtime, jumped a train, and—thanks to the KTX-express—reached Daejeon a mere one hour later. I was late though, about one hour into the show, when the taxi dropped me off in front of the theatre. I hurried towards the entrance and followed a nice man, somewhere in his 40s, towards the stage. It was him who had, in a charming Chungcheong dialect, meticulously explained the directions a few days earlier on the phone.
As soon as we entered the room, the man—obviously a great afficionado of pansori, if not a practitioner himself—let out the first loud “chohta!” (촣다, “good!”), directed towards the stage where, accompanied by a rather young drummer on the far right side, a middle-aged woman was in the middle of singing a fast-paced part. I did not recognize her, but from the announcement I knew the singer was Go Hyang-im (고향임 / 高香任) performing Sugung-ga (수궁가), the “Song of the Underwater Palace”.
We stayed in the entrance at first and while the afficionado (that is what I will call him henceforth, see also his fanpage) kept on shouting calls of encouragement (so-called chuimsae, 추임새), I took a look around. The room was almost bursting full. There were people of all ages, from young children to senior citizens, approximately a hundred and fifty spectators in total.
Spectators might be the wrong word, however, because the way in which most of them contributed to the performance was way beyond mere observation. The afficionado stood out with frequent calls in a loud and distinct voice, but in fact the air was full of chuimsae, some of them overlapping, some consecutively creating a dense rhythm of responses to the singer’s action. Apart from the continuing calls, again and again short dialogues with the singer evoked an intimate rapport despite the slightly elevated stage.
After a few minutes someone led me to one of the few free seat and I gathered myself a bit. Right next to me sat an older woman. She was listening eagerly, sometimes drumming on the armrest of her chair. A while later she seemed to doze off and then left before the show was over.
The whole atmosphere was positively relaxed, with people coming and going and changing places, kids walking from here to there, someone getting coffee for her friends, most checking their cell phones every now and then. Besides two “official” photographers, almost everybody took occasional pictures, someone behind me even recorded some parts with his arm stretched out.
Many spectators were following the lyrics in the program book or, as I spotted, in their own notes. Obviously, quite a few of them were the students of Go Hyang-im or otherwise involved in pansori. Some young girls where dressed in colourful hanbok, the ones you see on family pictures, unlike Go Hyang-im who wore white.
Although I mostly savored the flow of interaction, from time to time I tried to focus on the story told, the one about the rabbit who is brought before the dragon king (whose residence is the eponimous underwater palace) by a turtle to donate its liver for His Majesty’s recovery. Knowing the basic storyline, I got into a few scenes without much effort, such as the trip through the sea or the part where the rabbit tries to hide from a bloodthirsty eagle. Go Hyang-im’s occasional acting seemed to amplify the comic moments that make this otherwise rather odd plot (the morale of which seems to be that every cheat is good enough to fool your superior, although some 19th century scholars tried to spot the Confucian virtue of loyalty in this trickster’s tale) a pleasure to listen to.
But even more impressive was the participation of the spectators—chuimsae from everywhere, no, mostly from the front rows, but that might have been an acoustic mirage. I repeatedly caught myself whipping in the rhythm of the music or drumming on my kneecaps and, as I could witness, I was not the only one. One row in front of me, an elderly man enthusiastically participated in the jangdan (장단, lit. “long-short”, the rhythmic patterns that form the backbone of pansori singing) with his fingertips on the program notes, only to suddenly leave one or two hours into the show.
As the performance continued, impalpably time was getting out of tune, I lost all track and it was only when I caught a glimpse on my neighbor’s cell phone (someone who joined me for a while to get a better angle for his camera) that I realized that only about ninety minutes had passed since I had arrived. Could have been hours.
I enjoyed listening to Go Hyang-im’s singing very much and there two or three moments that made me hold my breath, tones that she kept in her mouth for so long that her lungs must have been close to bursting. She engaged very sparsely in neoreumsae (너름새, “gestures”), sometimes facing the drummer or using her fan as a prop. At one point she would even throw it onto the floor and the audience honored this rather unconventional “gesture” with much laughter. All in all, the way she temporarily stepped into the role of a character added more to the strong responsive connection between her and the spectators than to the visualization of the story.
Lost in time, I could not help smiling inside, again and again. Although I still was a stranger to the event, a mere visitor from Seoul, a foreigner with an interest in Korean tradition but still a stranger who had just walked in, dropped by to get a thrill out of some energizing exotic sounds—despite this undeniable attitude of the distanced academic who carefully watches the object of his research (or his desire), takes some notes and leaves, only to commodify the living culture he witnessed in his writing, some words on a monitor glimmering in the dark of his study, far far away, words he considers at least kind of objective despite better knowledge… Anyway, despite all this, I felt so right, right in place, right in time, momentarily.
The overall lightness of the performance concealed the importance of the event: This was a wanchang balpyohoe (완창 발표회, “full-length presentation”), an official performance of Go Hyang-im’s skills that brought her a bit closer to the pansori hall of fame, i.e. becoming a state-sponsored “holder of talent” (예능 보유자), thus a so-called ingan munhwajae (인간 문화재, “human cultural asset”).
In Go’s case, the respective yupa (유파, “school” or “lineage”) would be dongcho-je (동초제), a genealogy of transmission named after the famous singer and compiler of pansori Kim Yeon-su (김연수 / 金演洙, 1907~1974), or rather after his stage name Dongcho (동초 / 東超). By adding his own variations, virtuous amendments etc. he created his own personal version or badi (바디) of Sugung-ga (as well as of other pieces) which is, in turn, replicated and amended by his numerous students and theirs, respectively, thus continuing the dongcho-je tradition.
I also learned from the program notes that Go Hyang-im had already completed two other full pieces in this style, Heungbo-ga (1998) and the eight-hour-long Chunhyang-ga (2009, see an article at DTNews24). Although with a length of only three-and-a-half hours a rather short piece, today’s performance of Sugung-ga still was an important step in her career—and certainly not a piece of cake.
That made the scenes of cooperation between stage and audience—including some moments of light-hearted conflict—even more surprising and emotional. For example, some spectators helped Go Hyang-im out as she staggered with her lines. At another point, the pansori-afficionado (who was still standing in the entrance) demanded a specific song, or so it seemd, and she denied it with the word “eoryeopseumnida” (어렵습니다, “[that would be] difficult”). In the end, as the audience broke out into loud applause, he cried on the top of his lungs: “Seonsaeng-nim choego!” (선생님 최고!, “[our] teacher is the best!”). While the intimate interaction between singer and audience might be mostly due to familiarity off stage, the effect still is astonishing, making me feel like a participant in a gathering of friends and family.
Having missed the opening, I was of course eager to see what would happen after the curtain call. Students, teachers, and other affiliated persons flocked onto the stage to join Go Hyang-im for pictures and even I ended in the last row of a souvenir shot. After signing the guestbook, I thanked the afficionado who had made this possible for me. He even invited me to dinner, a very tempting offer, but unfortunately I had an earlier appointment that night. I walked back to the station and half an hour later I was sitting in the train back to Seoul.
This trip into the “heart” of Korea, a rather unusual region when it comes to pansori tradition (whose roots are usually situated in South Jeolla Province), was certainly one to remember. From a comparative perspective, the rather ceremonial context of this performance was very interesting for me, exemplified not only by the various formal greetings and congratulary remarks featured in the program book but also by the flowers in front of the theatre and the dressed-up students in the audience.
Different from the monthly wanchang-performances at the National Theater in Seoul, another rather “orthodox” format and the obvious reference for this type of show, where an encyclopedic approach that represents various kinds of schools and styles of singing prevails, this balpyohoe stressed the singularity of the event, albeit in the larger frame of a continuing tradition. But it is not so much the national tradition that was stressed here, but rather its local implementation. (see also a short article in the Daejon Ilbo, 대전일보)
While it was the Hanguk Pansori Bojonhoe (한국판소리보존회), the Korean Association for the Preservation of Pansori, that hosted the event, it were people like the afficionado who called out chuimsae from the depth of his heart (a local representative of the association, as I learned later, thus virtually standing on the threshold between the two worlds, warm performance space and cold lobby) and made this afternoon in Daejeon worthwhile and moving in the truest sense of the word.
— 30 Dec. 2011 (金)
- 2011 고향임 명창 동초제 판소리《수궁가》완창 발표회, 대전연정국악원 소극장, 2011년 12월 30일 (금), (14)15~17.30시까지, 가 53.
- Mastersinger Go Hyang-im’s 2011 Pansori Full-Length Presentation of Sugung-ga, Daejeon Yonjeong Korean Traditional Music Culture Center, Small Theatre, 2011-12-30 (Fri), (14)-17.30h, 가 53.