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Female Operas and HwangByung-ki

#Sounds of Korea l 2019-04-17

Sounds of Korea


Changgeuk창극 is a genre of Korean traditional operas based on pansori. The genre was first conceived in the early 1900s, but back then there were very few opportunities to put on such productions and the singers did not act, but merely sang their respective parts. Over time, however, changgeuk began to take on the form of a proper opera.


After Korea’s liberation, a special performing arts discipline called female opera was established. It referred to operatic or musical productions performed by all-female casts. Prior to the emergence of this discipline, female singers had a hard time securing good roles in stage performances. They were often discriminated against and relegated to demeaning busy work or housekeeping chores.


The lack of appreciation for the talent that female singers possessed prompted several famous singers, such as Kim So-hee김소희, Park Gwi-hee박귀희 and Lim Chun-aeng임춘앵, to organize a female gugak club and present a female opera production of “Okjunghwa옥중화” or “Flower in Prison.” 


Though their first effort attracted little attention, another production introduced the following year was a smash hit, generating a boom in female operas that lasted until the 1960s. The female opera company was so popular at the time that they had to run from throngs of screaming fans and had so much cash that they were practically sweeping it off the floor.


The first piece for this week’s Sounds of Korea is a scene from female opera “Princess Seonhwa선화” in which the princess and the character Seodong서동 meet for the first time. It is performed by Cho Young-sook and Han Hye-sun.

Music 1:  From “Princess Seonhwa”/ Sung by Cho Young-sook, Han Hye-sun


Traditional female operas presented new productions inspired by old folktales in addition to the existing pansori pieces. New songs or instrumental music had to be composed for such productions, prompting modifications of Korean traditional instruments and sparking growth in traditional music styes.

However, the genre fell out of favor with the mainstream public as television and movies became more widely accessible. Nowadays, few remember the traditional female operas. 


Gayageum virtuoso Hwang Byung-ki was credited with pioneering a new brand of Korean traditional music. He first learned how to play the gayageum at the National Gugak Center in 1952, when he was just a middle school student. He was living in Busan, far from the front lines of the Korean War which was raging at the time. About ten years later, he presented his first creative piece, “The Forest,” at a National Gugak Center concert.


Back then, Korean music was largely taught orally, with a student studying how the teacher performed or sang and copying or improving upon it. When the student reaches a certain level, he or she can dictate how they will play or sing a piece, but creative music composition was rarely heard of. Hwang Byung-ki pioneered a new field by coming up with new melodies and techniques while retaining the unique sentiments of Korean traditional music. 


He was invited by the University of Hawaii to play his composition at the Festival of Music and Art of This Century in 1965, which propelled him to international stardom. His original composition, “The Forest,” was applauded as “a psychological antidote for the modern people living in this high-speed era.” The piece is comprised of four movements, and today we’ll listen to the second, third, and fourth ones.

Music 2: From “The Forest”/ Composed and performed by Hwang Byung-ki


As creative modern compositions of Korean traditional music became more popular, the city of Seoul founded the country’s first gugak orchestra in 1965. Since there had never been a gugak orchestra before, musicians had a hard time arranging the instruments and following the conductor. 


But, over time, more and more gugak orchestras were established around the country, such as the KBS Traditional Music Orchestra in 1985. These orchestras wrote music pieces inspired by local history and characteristics, and brought Korea’s traditional music closer to modern society.


The last piece we’ll listen to today is “Manjeonchun만전춘,” an orchestral adaptation of a music piece from the Joseon era. This was included in the commemorative album for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Orchestra. It is sung by Kwon Song-hee and performed by the Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Orchestra.

Music 3: Manjeonchun/ Sung by Kwon Song-hee, performed by the SMTO

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