A scene from the Korean pansori opera Sugunga (English title: Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King), performed at the Opernhaus Wuppertal theatre in Wuppertal, Germany (Photo: Gonggam Korea).
Kim Sang-sul, head of Marketing and Public
Relations for the National Theatre of Korea, recently returned to Korea
after heading the first European performance tour by the National
Changgeuk Company in Wuppertal, Germany. In the following article,
originally published at Gonggam Korea, Kim shares his reflections on the
With K-pop spearheading a new chapter in the
worldwide spread of Hallyu, more and more people are showing a deeper
interest in Korean culture, one that goes beyond the bright lights and
celebrity buzz. It is this subtle redirection “back to the basics” that
gives me hope that traditional Korean culture will reach a wider
audience in the foreseeable future.
month, I traveled to Wuppertal, Germany, with a 68-member team from the
National Changgeuk Company of Korea, for the first-ever international
performance of the Korean pansori opera Sugungga
, known in English as Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King
The prospect of seeing one of our traditional operas play out on the
stage of the Opernhaus Wuppertal theatre, the creative birthplace of
legendary German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, was enough to
take my breath away.
Before opening night, I was understandably
nervous about what kind of reception awaited our show. But for me and
the rest of our team, the fact that Opernhaus Wuppertal management had
gone to great lengths to open a space for us on a tight calendar that
often requires two years’ advance booking was an honor in itself. We
were grateful for the opportunity to introduce Korea’s 400-year-old
pansori tradition and 120-year-old changgeuk opera legacy in a city that
currently boasts Germany’s liveliest art scene.
The response by
the audiences was overwhelming. From December 21 to 23, each show of our
three-day tour opened to sold-out crowds. The standing ovation that
inevitably followed each night’s closing act continued long after the
curtain fell. Fixed on the spectacle onstage, audience members made no
move to leave their seats during the show, despite the three-hour
The titters and collective bursts of laughter that
punctuated the performance in all the right places also left me amazed.
The quick banter and satirical jabs in changgeuk opera can be difficult
for even Koreans to follow, but the enthusiastic reactions by the
Wuppertal crowds and their appreciation for the humor laced in each
flashing subtitle convinced me of the genre’s universal appeal.
|A packed audience waits for the show to begin at the Opernhaus Wuppertal theatre in Wuppertal, Germany (Photo: Gonggam Korea). |
Local media outlets also zeroed in on the show’s remarkable success. The Westdeutsche Zeitung
described the story and characters at length under the headline,
“Korea’s Hare Hunter Brings Zest and Wit to the Stage.” German public
broadcasting station WDR brought viewers footage of performance
rehearsals and also interviews with stage director Achim Freyer and
house manager Johannes Weigand discussing the opera’s artistic merits.
from opera houses in neighboring Frankfurt, Hamburg, Mannheim, Basil,
and Dortmund also tracked us down to express interest in bringing
Sugungga to their cities.
Our tour also marked a significant
occasion for cultural exchange between Korea and Germany. Several
hundred guests, including the secretary of cultural affairs for the
North Rhine-Westphalia state, the chief of Wuppertal’s Bureau of
Cultural Affairs, the consul general of the Korean embassy in Germany,
and the director of the Korean Community Association of Germany attended
the commemorative gala and the pansori presentation that took place in
the days leading up to opening night.
The fact that Sugungga
enjoyed such success during its short run, in a city with fewer than
100 Korean residents and no Korean community association to its name,
must be attributed in part to the efforts of acclaimed director Achim
Freyer and his passion for pansori.
|A scene from the Korean pansori opera Sugunga (English title: Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King), performed at the Opernhaus Wuppertal theatre in Wuppertal, Germany (Photo: Gonggam Korea). |
three packed months, Freyer labored alongside our actors and crew with
an energy and contagious zeal that belied his 77 years. From the
outlandish masks donned by the animal characters to the plastic bottles
dangling from the ceiling, each detail of the production spoke to
Freyer’s artistic vision. The end result was a true feast of sights and
sounds, with each scene framed by neon backdrops, striking costumes, and
rhythmic melodies produced on traditional Korean instruments.
Freyer infused Sugungga
a modern stylistic polish that only amplified the raw dramatic power of
the pansori form, appealing not only to German opera goers’ penchant
for the familiar but also their taste for the fresh and provocative.
gratifying and emotionally riveting, pansori has given voice and
cathartic release to the laments of the Korean people for over 400
years. On the occasion of its rebirth as an operatic medium with the
potential to connect people from all over the world, I would like to
invite Koreans too to rediscover the magic of this most “Korean” of
Korean art forms. Pansori’s path to the world’s stages will be lined
with our collective efforts.
*Adapted from Gonggam Korea
Translated by Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staff Writer