Keep the Kleenex handy

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Keep the Kleenex handy

It's a long way from the studied world of ballet and cello to the passionate heartache of the pansori, the one-person Korean opera that can last up to nine hours. But Kolleen Park, 36, jumped at the chance. It's all in the han, an overwhelming sense of bitterness and sorrow that envelops the pansori as it does so much of the peninsula's culture.

"You don't know how Korean people love sad music," said the professor at the Korean University of the Arts in describing han. "I know it's there when I perform it. And I know that every time I compose or write something, I will always have a box of tissue next to me."

The word pansori only came into being in the 1960s, when people looked for a way to describe the singing genre, but the art itself ?a form of storytelling that involves dance, music and song ?evolved in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1895). Pan literally means "people gathering together for a performance," and sori, "voice" or "sound," but these two words are not enough to fully explain the pervasive art form.

Dressed in traditional Korean costume, the hanbok, the singer usually stands to act as a narrator, impersonating all the characters in the story. A drum player will sit at a distance to provide background music. Some performers hold a fan in their hand during the performance, which can last for hours.

More recently, two major movies by the director Im Kwon-taek have further raised pansori's profile: "Seopyeonjae" in 1993 and "Chunhyang" in 2000. "Seopyeonjae" caused a sensation in Korea and made it to several movie festivals around the world, including Berlin, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Nantes and Singapore. It is the story of Yubong (Kim Myung-gon), a traveling pansori performer in the 1940s and 1950s, who wants his two adopted children to learn this traditional art in a period when traditional values are on the decline. His daughter Songhwa (Oh Jung-hae) is particularly talented, and to develop her han, he secretly gives her a poison that blinds her.

His more recent film, "Chunhyang," was even more successful on the international stage. Vividly rich in color and culture, the movie premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and was screened at film festivals in New York, Telluride and Toronto. Set in the 18th century, the poetic tale depicts the romance between Mongryong (Cho Seung-woo), the son of a local governor, and Chunhyang (Lee Hyo-jung), a courtesan's daughter. Soon after their secret marriage, Mongryong must leave the city to continue his education, but he promises her that he will return. A new governor comes and falls in love with Chunhyang, but she refuses his advances, only to be imprisoned. Nobly, she waits for Mongryong to save her. The film is told in the form of a pansori, with the singing narrating the film.

There were once many pansori stories, but now only five remain. Compared to Western music, the pansori is slower, but with complicated rhythms. Many basic assumptions of Western music are absent. "It's not a matter where it starts and where it ends, but how," Ms. Park said, waving her hands. "It's all the circular movements and the constant breathing which ties into han."

Pansori is also full of moral and history lessons. Ms. Park cited the story Baekbalga as an example. "The first phrase tells you everything: 'life is a circle,'" she said. "There is nothing that is forever. No matter how great you are, you eventually die."

For information about traditional Korean music, the Web site has a detailed introduction in Korean to many forms. Interested non-Korean speakers can go to the Web site of the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts at and then click the "English" icon. The center also offers classes for foreigners during the summer. To get to the arts center, take subway line No. 3 to Nambu Terminal Station, where a minibus goes to the center. For information, call 02-580-3333.


Pansori's song a sad one, but there's joy there, too

By Sung Tae-kyung

Contributing Writer

“Pansori is not just singing,” said Ahn Sook-sun, a 49year-old pansori prima donna. “From the important to the trivial, to the hopes, expectations, aspirations and everything else in life, so much more is resolved through sound than words. Not just my eyes but all of my senses needed to be aware before I could be spiritually awakened. Without attaining such enlightenment I would not have a reason for singing, or living.”

Ahn is an art director at the National Changguk Company of Korea, which is associated with the National Theater of Korea. Though her explanation left me baffled, once I heard her perform a sori, or musical work, with her powerful, profound and sonorous voice, I began to understand. When she sang, I became completely absorbed and got the impression that pansori cannot be explained - it must be felt by the heart.

Ahn was born in a place that is famous for its sori, Namwon city in North Jeolla province. Many of her relatives were masters of traditional music, and she was fated from childhood to do pansori. From age 9 she was coached by her uncle Gang Do-gon, whom the government honored as a human cultural asset.

But Ahn was reluctant at first. “I didn’t want to do sori,” she explained. “I didn’t think it was my road and I didn’t want to sing at banquets as a sideshow.” But in those days, she said, she couldn’t disobey her elders.

Her knack for the art, though, eventually won her over. “I got married, had kids, met life’s up and downs,” she said. “Then I began to relish traditional music. Now I don’t just bawl . I sing with heart and soul.”

Since she enrolled in the National Korean Musical Drama Troupe in 1979, she has never missed a day of practice. “The voice is like a pipe,” she said. “You have to sing every day to clear your voice or it will get rusty.”

Practitioners say that when you truly let your voice out, you should be spitting blood. Ahn insisted: “If you sing with all your might when your vigor is weak, you bleed internally and thus spit blood.”

Pansori involves many years of hard work, so what keeps her going? “Only dull, slow-witted people do pansori,” she joked. “For hours and hours you have to sing and wrench your soul. To do that you have to tamp your voice . you tamp over and over again until you produce a voice ordinary people can’t make.”

Ahn pointed out that such excruciating efforts are not for everyone, but she knows that listeners are moved by the pain and strain. Is her endurance inspired by han, that particular Korean notion of grief or sadness?

“Pansori is usually an epic of a person,” Ahn said. “There is bound to be sadness, but happiness as well. Why should you be sad when you are singing the marriage scene in the love story of Chunhyang?”

Pansori is also changing with the times. “As long as it does not lose its Korean characteristics, new twists to pansori are welcome,” Ahn said.

One such fresh spin was hatched by Lee Yong-su, who works at the Kookmin Academy of Art and Culture. Moved by last fall’s terrorist attacks, Lee, 56, wrote a pansori titled “Oh, New York 2001!” “I wanted to condemn the brutality from an Oriental viewpoint,” he said, “as well as promote pansori to the world.”

by Patrick Fok

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