Woman honors Admiral Yi in song

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Woman honors Admiral Yi in song


Kim Young-ok smiles while recording the “Song of Admiral Yi Sun-sin” at a studio in Seoul. By Kim Do-hoon

Kim Young-ok, a Korean traditional singer, recently published a book titled “The Song of Admiral Yi Sun-sin.”

The book is a collection of lyrics for a four-hour pansori, or narrative singing opera, song and marks the first attempt by pansori singers to release a pansori book entirely on Admiral Yi.

The lyric story line centers on the life of Korea’s most respected Navy general in history.

It took her six years to amass relevant historical facts and write lyrics for the work, and another two years to put rhythms for each syllable to the lyrics.

Her eight-year effort in reformatting the history created by the most respected admiral in Korean history as a pansori song resulted in a masterpiece with 37,554 words.

“I wished to shed new light on the life of Admiral Yi through pansori,” said 65-year-old Kim during an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.

The song chronicles the life of the admiral, from the moment Yi was born to the moment he faced death in his last battle with the Japanese Navy at the later phase of the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula in the late 16th century.

The story line of the song not only centers on remarkable feats achieved by Yi, who played a critical role in saving the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that was on the brink of falling into the hands of the Japanese, but also on his humane aspects.

“I am not a commander in charge anymore, but a hopeless person facing miserable life,” sings Kim in lyrics she composed in describing the scene in which Yi is sent into exile after being embroiled in partisan politics despite a series of naval victories against the Japanese.

The veteran pansori singer first started narrative singing in middle school and studied Korean traditional music at Sorabol Arts College. Kim learned from the late pansori master Han Nong-sun, who was recognized by the state for his masterfulness in pansori, for 15 years.

It was in 2000 when Kim first became interested in the life story of Admiral Yi while working as head of the Yeosu City Korean Classical Music Orchestra.

Yeosu was one of the places where Yi commanded his pivotal battles on sea waters that determined the fate of the Joseon Dynasty.

“I felt thrilled when I first encountered humane aspects of Yi that expose him not only as the great commander but as a father who worries over his son, and a loving husband.”

Her project to revive Yi’s life story in the format of a pansori work soon began, prompting her to begin broad research, first by reading all available materials on the admiral she could get her hands on.

“When I was receiving a standing ovation at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2008 from performing the song of Admiral Yi, I wished the audience had felt closer to General Yi as a person through my song,” Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim requested the state to designate “the Song for Admiral Yi Soon-sin” as an intangible cultural asset but was rebuked as only pansori songs over 100 years old can be considered for the designation.

“The life of Admiral Yi itself is a valuable cultural asset. Yi’s life story transformed into the pansori song deserves the designation as a cultural asset,” said the veteran singer, who devoted nearly 10 years to reviving Yi’s story in a new form.

By Chung Kang-hyun [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]
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