A musical journey into the Korean soulWith his eyes closed, he sat through the 90-minute rehearsal alone in the shadowy theater seat. Often moving his hand about in small circles as if conducting an orchestra, Oh Hyun-myung, 81, could not be disturbed until he opened his eyes and came out of his trance.
The veteran baritone singer and head of the National Opera of Korea during the 1960s looked deceptively tall when he stood up. His trademark snowy white permed hair was neatly combed back.
“I’m not usually nervous unless I sing,” he said, chuckling as he wrangled his bolo tie. “But they made me speak in front of the audience tonight to introduce the repertoire of the Korean gagok show, and that's very important.”
On a recent night at Kumho Art Hall, near Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, the first of the 10 upcoming weekly concerts of Korean gagok, or classical songs from the early 20th century, was held. Mr. Oh was invited to open the first night with a colloquy on gagok.
“This concert had been organized by the younger singers and composers. It is a huge development and I am proud of them,” he said.
The concert was the first “public-oriented” gagok performance to be held since the 1980s, when the songs were still considered representative of Korean music. But while the older generation views the songs as classic and poised, most youth think gagok is out of date and boring.
Gagok is usually sung by opera singers, as it has a distinctive Western-style melody which began to influence Korean music in the Japanese colonial period. This influence led the melody of Korean songs to gradually change while the lyrics stayed more or less the same. The new melody was accompanied by sijo, a form of unrhymed Korean poem.
It is convention for gagok composers to write their music around a poet’s lines, hence most most older Koreans are already familiar with famous gagok pieces, because the lyrics are from well-known poems.
Voted Korea’s best gagok singer in a poll by the magazine Monthly Chosun, Mr. Oh was noted for performing songs so sincerely that listeners said every word touched them.
"That's one main reason I refuse to sing foreign opera songs," Mr. Oh said. "The sole reason for singing a song is to deliver a message. You are a parrot if you sing without knowing the true meaning."
"It took me a long time to figure that out," he added.
He said he didn't want to offend young Korean opera singers who sing in foreign languages in order to perform on an international stage, but there are some Korean singers who think Italian canzone or French chanson is superior to Korean gagok, without knowing the songs well enough to critique them.
"I know, because I was one of them," he said.
Once an admirer of German romantic songs, particulary those by Schubert and Schumann, he dreamed of singing to audiences around the world. He spent long nights translating the lyrics, but got so frustrated that often he gave up and simply memorized the lyrics by sound. Though he graduated from an elite music school at Seoul National University, the outbreak in 1950 of the Korean War killed his chance of studying abroad.
To him, Korean gagok pieces were sad songs from the colonial period, expressing a longing to return home, for freedom and that lamented deaths. In contrast, Italian canzone was passionate and soft, yet colorful. On the other hand, German songs were philosophical, and seemed to reflect the profound knowledge of the country’s intellectual class.
It was not until 1980 that Mr. Oh finally had his chance to visit Germany. He was by then a Hanyang University professor, and was chosen to be an exchange professor with Koln University, Germany.
He would be profoundly disappointed.
"German students were so proud of their songs and music that they did not bother to learn any Korean songs from a visiting Asian professor," he said. "To them, [gagok] was just a poorly westernized version of their national songs."
“I envied how German students were proud of their songs,” he said. “Who would cherish gagok if Korean singers didn’t sing it?”
Then he came home. During a regular recital back in Seoul performing some of his favorite German pieces, the audience was silent, nodding occasionally to show respect for his performance.
"I began to wonder if they really understood any of the songs I was singing," he said. "It was horrible to mock the audience who had come to see me, but I was beginning to have doubts that I could keep performing western music.”
The second half of the recital was nothing but gagok, and he said he felt a sudden change. The audience began to stir. Then it looked more relaxed. A few audience members opened their mouths to silently sing the familiar words from the lyrics that they knew from their secondary school days. The applause grew louder and people began to call out "bravo" seemingly from the bottom of their hearts, he said.
From then on, he urged his fellow opera singers to be more interested in gagok and to work hard for a comeback in the musical genre. He held numerous gagok concerts for the next 20 years, convincing one audience at a time that gagok is not inferior to other nations’ traditional music.
Mr. Oh then combined his love of the songs with his dream to perform overseas, touring the United States from the University of Kansas all the way to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Audiences seemed to respect his performance more once he started performing in Korean, he said.
One of his favorite gagok pieces is “Myeongtae” (which means pollack), composed by his late friend and a former diplomat, Byun Hoon, and with lyrics written by the Korean War correspondent and poet Yang Yeong-mun.
The song is a humorous depiction of how the fish might feel as it ends up in agony on a plate of a poor poet.
“The poor poet stays up late again with a paper in front of him,” the song goes. “Then he drinks up his cup filled soju (a strong Korean liquor). I could be his poem. I could be his side dish. My body would be ripped in pieces but my fame will live on.”
“I think only a Korean singer would be able to express in the right way how a myeongtae tastes when you gulp it down with soju ,” he said laughing. “It would be horrible for someone to sing this song without understanding what soju tastes like.”
Getting aquainted with the classics
From beginners to gagok fans, here are four albums that Gagok Sarang (Gagok Love), an onlince gagok album sales agency and information provider on gagok and its composers, is producing. Kim Ho-dong, a gagok critic, helped with the selections.
[Easy Listening] Ansan City Chorus
Not only is this album full of highlights of earlier gagok from the Japanese colonial period during the 1920s and 1930s, the Ansan City Chorus is recognized as one of the nation's most competitive classical singing groups. Its most famous number is the song "Nostalgia," written by poet Jung Ji-yong in 1927. He described his longing to go back home to the countryside. His songs were once prohibited, after he was forcibly taken to North Korea during the Korean War.
[Steadyseller] Special Selection: Korea Gagok Series
This album offer most of the famous gagok works from the 20th century.
It include the first known gagok piece, "Bongsunga" (Garden Balsam) by Hong Nan-pa, a father figure among the composers, and Korean adults’ all-time favorite, "Bimok" (Grave Wood) by Han Myeong-hui. Most of the songs are familiar to older Koreans, who learned them in secondary school. You’ll find yourself humming along.
[Bestseller] Four Composers’ Beautiful Art Songs
"A hot album," according to gagok critic Kim Ho-dong. Since its initial release last year, the album has been selling briskly. Four of the best composers in Korea have gathered to make an album, so there should be no further explanation about it, Mr. Kim said. The four composers are Choi Young-sup, Lee Soo-in, Lee An-sam and Im Geung-soo. Made up of two CDs, the first one has 16 of their famous works, while the second one lets you listen to their newest numbers.
[For the Advanced Listener] The 2nd New Korea Art Song Collection
This album is made up of songs written and sung by contemporary gagok singers and young poets. Most of the songs, being fairly new, are not well known and the lyrics are from newly-written contemporary poems that differ from sijo, an unrhymed Korean form of poetry that gagok is usually based on. Critics suggest that only advanced listeners take on this new style.
by Lee Min-a
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