Kim Myung-gon, chairman of Jeonju International Sori Festival
By Do Je-hae
"Pansori," a genre of traditional music, is likened to the Korean version of Western opera, in that they both tell stories through music.
However, there is a stark contrast between them. An opera is a joint production of a host of singers, a large orchestra led by a conductor, and sometimes even a choir.
A pansori concert is much more subdued, involving a single singer with the sole accompaniment of traditional drums.
It is this distinction that draws foreigners to pansori, according to Kim Myung-gon, chairman of the Jeonju International Sori Festival (JISF). The JISF celebrates its 10th season this year.
A former culture minister, Kim is a pansori performer, actor and producer, and former president of the National Theater of Korea. He has been leading preparations for the JISF, which is known for its projects to globalize and modernize pansori for a wider range of audiences here and abroad.
"In an opera, a group of singers each sing their own roles. In a pansori performance, one performer takes on all the roles in the libretto," Kim explained. "Foreigners who have experienced the JISF have been fascinated with the energy, the variety of musical expression and the vibrant colors of the voice of the artists."
The 58-year-old recently spoke with The Korea Times at his office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, as preparations are underway for the 10th anniversary celebration, which will take place from Oct. 1 to 5. Jeonju is expecting a larger foreign audience than ever, in light of the 2010-2012 Visit Korea campaign.
To aid foreigners' understanding of the lyrics, the JISF has been operating English captions in all of their performances.
"Westerners are also amazed by the years of training, practice and dedication that go into achieving the task of performing pansori by oneself."
Many go into the profession and go through excruciating training, but only a handful achieve the status of "Myeongchang," or "highest master of song."
The JISF often features notable artists such as Ahn Sook-seon in masterpieces for the audience, and performers from more than 20 countries, including Australia, Mongolia, Tibet and states in Latin America.
A piece like the famous love story "Chunhyangga," requires singers to transform themselves vocally and physically from a young girl in love to an authoritarian police chief, an ardent suitor and a noisy mother in the span of one performance.
They must, on command, vocally imitate the sounds of nature and animals as well.
It takes about 10 years just to learn the basic vocal techniques, and between 20 and 30 years to be able to execute a performance, according to Kim, who has had pansori training. A full performance can take anywhere from five to eight hours, requiring not just musical talent but also immense levels of concentration and physical strength.
One must be completely in command of the lyrics, the tunes and the accompaniment during the whole time. There are no scores to aid them throughout the performance.
"One can achieve a certain level through training, but executing a full performance, or what we call 'Wanchang,' is a product of destiny. You must be born to do it," Kim said.
Only five of the original twelve pansori masterpieces survive today - "Heungbuga," "Simcheongga," "Chunhyangga," "Jeokbyeokga" and "Sugungga."
As part of a globalization project, the organizers of the JISF, in cooperation with the culture ministry and the North Jeolla provincial government, recently published the English translation of "Heungbuga" (a story of sibling rivalry). English versions of "Simgheongga," (a tale of filial piety) and "Chunhyangga" have already been published.
"We will launch similar projects with 'Jeokbyeokga' (legend of a Chinese war) and 'Sugungga' (a tale of animals) this year, completing the translation project of all five major pansori masterpieces," Kim said.
"Without English captions, foreigners may have a hard time understanding the piece. But the stories carry a universal message," Kim said, in explaining the standing ovations from foreign audiences that have often followed JISF performances.
UNESCO proclaimed the pansori tradition a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
The JISF was first conceived 10 years ago with the aim to introduce traditional Korean music to the world, particularly through joint performances with overseas music groups engaged in their own traditional music as well as those in jazz, electronic music and other modern genres.
Jeonju in North Jeolla Province has long been considered a "village of the arts" by many Koreans, particularly for its traditional expertise in music, cuisine and architecture.
Many acclaimed pansori artists have come from the region, including Kim himself.
It has also been a favorite tourism destination for foreigners as home to a cluster of traditional Korean-styled houses.
Last year, North Jeolla Province signed a memorandum of understanding with the foreign ministry, launching a series of initiatives to globalize traditional "hansik" (Korean cuisine), "hanbok" (dress), "hanok" (house), "hanji" (paper), and "pansori."
The province's engagement with the foreign ministry in globalizing traditional assets is in line with Korea's efforts to upgrade its underestimated stature in the international community as a country of artistic tradition.
"It has become an international trend to improve and modernize one's own cultural traditions and present them to overseas audiences," Kim said.
"Traditional cultural contents are the basis for immense commercial success," he stressed.
He also referred to what China is doing with its own cultural contents and traditional philosophy.
China has been generating a cultural boom for reviving the philosophy of Confucius. Traditional Chinese tales, music and legends have been central to the works of world-renowned Chinese moviemakers such as Zhang Yimou.
He thinks that the potential of Korea's cultural tradition have not been fully recognized by some policymakers.
"Some harbor a misconception that tradition acts as a hindrance to modernization. But tradition is not just about the past. It is closely related to the future," Kim added.
As a former minister of culture, Kim expressed concerns about the diminishing state support for traditional performing arts.
While in office in 2006, Kim established a department for supporting traditional culture within the ministry, set up a 10-year roadmap for advancing traditional arts and increased the associated budget, but such efforts have since been reduced, he said.
He expressed concerns about the lack of education on our own music in school curricula, which he sees as one of the main reasons for the general ignorance on pansori.
Many Koreans take piano or violin lessons for granted, but taking up a Korean traditional instrument, like the "gayageum," is an unfamiliar concept.
Those who wish to learn Korean traditional music can do so in classes offered by the National Theater of Korea or the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, Kim noted added.
"Under the law, about 30 percent of music textbooks are supposed to be dedicated to introducing Korean traditional music. However, music is not just about theory. How can students learn pansori when teachers themselves don't know how to play Korean instruments or sing a pansori tune?"
The reason for the lack of emphasis on Korean music is that music curricula have largely been shaped by scholars who were trained in Western Classical music, Kim explained.
He suggested that prospective music teachers in elementary, middle or high schools be subject to mandatory courses on Korean music before they acquire their teaching license.
Pansori has not had an enthusiastic reception among most Koreans until recent decades.
In the early 1990s, master filmmaker Im Kwon-taek helped rekindle public interest in it thorough his signature pansori film "Seopyeonje." It was Kim who wrote the scenario for the film.
"It is unfortunate that we have not seen a film that exceeds the success of Seopyeonje. I hope to see more investment in such films in the years ahead," Kim said.