An eccentric beginner(‘)s(‘) guide to Pansori

My aim is to persuade you that when I claim the Korean art form Pansori is equivalent to Shakespeare in its emotional power and expressive range – like Shakespeare, it can switch from high art to low (or, indeed high) comedy in an instant – there is a reasonable chance I may be correct.

*** Update 13-November-2014 ***

I have made this comparison of Pansori to Shakespeare twice to other people:

1. To the Korean film director Im Kwon-taek, through an intepreter. He replied that at an American film festival an American experimental film director had said something very similar to him. More details about half-way down here or here.

2. Earlier today to Professor James Grayson of Sheffield University, after a Gresham College lecture he gave on Korean folk tales (which I thoroughly recommend – it should be available online here). My impression was that it wasn’t a new comparison to him, and that he agreed with it.

I have also mentioned Korean music and Pansori to two eminent composers, and I hope they won’t mind if I summarise their responses.

1. Nicola LeFanu said she’d seen Pansori in the United States, and that she used elements of Pansori in her 1981 composition “The Old WOman of Beare”.

2. “Peter Wiegold said that he thought that Korean music “is the funkiest on the planet”

3. I mentioned a forthcoming Pansori performance by Ahn Sook-sun at the Cadogan Hall to a Jazz singer and she replied that the experimental composer David Toop had already said she should go to it.

I’ll also say that my personal experience is I’ve only seen good Pansori performers, and that a good Pansori performer is a very very very good performer. (In fact, I think it would be an excellent idea for actors and opera singers to take classes in performance from Pansori artists.)

*** end of update ***

A link for details of a Pansori based peformance in London on Monday 30 July 2012.

A link for another personal view of Pansori, but by the rather more than somewhat better known Brian McMaster (former director of the Edinburgh International Festival: you might consider reading his views first.

This story starts in about 2002: Brian McMaster (at the time director of the Edinburgh International Festival) received a telephone call from a colleague in Paris. She told him there was something on in Paris which he must see, and he should come at once.

He rang off, booked a flight to Paris, then called her back and asked what he was going to see. She told him. What happened then went something like this – he paused, then said:
Let me check that I’ve fully understood you – I’m flying to Paris tomorrow to see a performance:
* which is wholly in Korean, a language which I don’t understand;
* which will last for three or more hours;
* which has only two performers;
* one of whom sits on the floor thoughout the performance and only plays a small drum with a single stick, occasionally shouting encouragement to the other performer;
* the other performer stands, sometimes speaking, sometimes singing in a rather harsh voice, and has a single prop, a fan which he or she occasionally flicks open or closed to emphasize a point;
* that’s it.

She said: yes.

He must have trusted her judgment because he did go to Paris. I don’t know how he reacted to the performance in Paris, but it’s a matter of public record that in August 2003 the Edinburgh International Festival programmed full Pansori performances over five consecutive evenings in the Reid Concert Hall.

I kmow all the above because Brian McMaster wrote an article (and/or gave an interview), a copy of which was pinned up in the ticket office of the Edinburgh International Festival.

(The above was written from my memory of 2003 – you can judge how good my memory is by reading Brian McMaster’s interview with The Scotsman of 28 March 2003: I think my memory is fairly accurate!)

I was at these 2003 Pansori performances: in 2002 in Edinburgh I’d seen the film “Chunhyang” by the Korean director Im Kwon-taek, which cuts between a filmed Pansori performance in a theatre and filmed scenes of the story of Chunhyang. This film was my first experience of Pansori, and I was so interested and impressed that I went to see the film again, persuading an Edinburgh friend to come with me. (At my prompting, she later emailed saying “Much to my surprise I did enjoy Chunhyang”.)

So I wasn’t going to miss a chance to see live Pansori in 2003. I was very committed to this: even if I’d really disliked the first performance I would still have gone to the other four, and even if by the interval of the fifth performance I was still disliking it I would have gone back for the second half.

My circumstances for the first Pansori performance – the story of Heungbu – were not propitious. I was tired, and I didn’t know how long the performance would last and I had a ticket for a performance by Korean-American comedian Tina Kim, which I didn’t want to miss, so I was worried that I might have to leave the Pansori performance early.

The plot of Heungbu is that a man helps a swallow by mending its broken leg, and it then helps him. (There’s a sub-plot in which his bad brother sees what has happened to the man, and breaks another swallow’s leg and then mends it in the hope that this swallow will bring him riches!)

I wasn’t bored by the first half, but I certainly wasn’t thinking that this one of the great art forms of the world. Then just after the interval there was a wonderfully poetic description of the migration flight of the swallow with the mended leg, and I became fully awake and absolutely in tune with the performers, and thinking this was one of the best things I had ever seen.

It helped that there were very good surtitles: I could now watch a Pansori performance without much (if any) understanding of the story and still get a lot from it, but I think that for most people (as for me) it helps very much if at your first experience of Pansori you understand the story and what’s happening from moment to moment.

Then at the end of the description of the migration flight of the swallow the performer/singer/storyteller switced from singing to speaking. The surtitle was that after the migration flight “the swallow then reported to the Chief Swallow Migration Officer”.

I don’t know what a literal translation of that Korean would be, but I suspect it would be rather different to that. But I also strongly suspect that while that translation wasn’t literal, it was a faithful rendition of the spirit of the Korean: note that the singer/storyteller had switched from singing to speaking, and that in itself suggests that there was quite a change in the tone of the performance.

I was convinced of high art value of Pansori by the performance of the migration flight of the swallow. The switch made me think that Pansori was equivalent to in artistic greatness to Shakespeare, and I haven’t since changed my mind about the validity of that parallel. In fact, I’d argue that in one way Pansori is greater than Shakespeare: in his two to three hour plays Shakespeare needs (or at any rate uses) several main actors, but Pansori has just the singer/storyteller performing many roles, switching in and out of frames, sometimes being a narrator, at other times playing one of the roles, plus the drummer, whose role is an important one.

*** to be continued, but for now a comment and some links:

* comment: anyone interested in the art of performance should take advantage of any – probably rare if you’re not in Korea – opportunities to see a live Pansori performance;

* a comment by a music critic in The Times on 25 July 2003:
.. Then there is the decision to put on 19 hours of traditional Korean music-theatre — called Pansori. Thrilling stuff, no doubt, but I will be interested to see the box-office figure for, say, The Song of Chunhyang, a show involving one actor and one drummer that has a scheduled running-time of five hours and 30 minutes. …
** Being charitable I assume he wrote that *before* he saw any Pansori.

* the opening of a review in The Scotsman from 16 August 2003
The Saga of Heungbo *** REID CONCERT HALL Edinburgh International Festival
YOU walked into the Reid Hall in trepidation. What would you make of two hours-plus of unintelligible folk opera, with only the singer’s fan and folded handkerchief as props?
In fact, The Saga of Heungbo, the first of the Festival’s series of pansori, a Korean form of epic musical storytelling, proved engaging and at times downright riveting. All right, Brian McMaster had told us we’d like it, but as Festival Director, he would, wouldn’t he?
Firstly, pansori proved visually arresting, with the silk-clad figures of singer Kim Soo-yeon, and the drummers …

*** links

* Pansori article on Wikipedia

* details and links for a Pansori performance in London on Monday 30 July 2012 at the Southbank Centre

* a preview of a 2013 Pansori event (by me) which was published on

About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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3 Responses to An eccentric beginner(‘)s(‘) guide to Pansori

  1. Pingback: Pansori | Suliram – some ideas on arts

  2. Pingback: All Eyes on Korea: consistent investment in the performing arts brings its rewards | London Korean Links

  3. Pingback: Pansori Campaign – two films in late October and early November 2012 | Suliram – some ideas on arts

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