Andrew Killick: In Search of Korean Traditional Opera

The Asian Performing Arts Forum sponsored the book launch of Andrew Killick’s book  In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’angguk (University of Hawaii Press, 2010) on 10 June 2011 at Centre for Creative Collaboration in London, and Dr Killick addressed the Forum about this landmark study in Korean musical theatre.

Ch’angguk (from the Korean words guk, meaning drama, and ch’ang, meaning singing in p’ansori style) developed about 100 years ago from the narrative singing tradition of p’ansori. As the name suggests, it shares the same style of singing as p’ansori, and also draws on p’ansori‘s dramatic repertoire, but is more theatrical in presentation. It also uses a larger musical ensemble, including today synthesizer and a variety of Korean traditional instruments, male and female singers, scenery and theatrical lighting.

Ch’angguk is promoted in English-language newspapers in Korea as ‘Korean traditional opera’ but, Killick argued, it hasn’t really achieved yet the status of ‘tradition.’ Though established in a conscious effort to find an equivalent of Japanese kabuki and Chinese opera – the previously-established Korean dramatic genres of puppet theatre and mask dance being not respectable enough – it in fact drew more on Japanese popular theatre and Western music hall than the revered icons of Asian traditional theatre of Korea’s neighbouring countries. Ch’angguk attempted to achieve a classical status by drawing on p’ansori aesthetics and the intimate relation to audience. But it has also strove continually to be contemporary and achieve popularity with audiences. In recent years, it has been traditionalised to an extent, rejecting the genre’s past popularism.

Killick described how ch’angguk emerged with the establishment of Korea’s first indoor theatre spaces in the first decade of the 20th century, and how it thrived in the 1910s, despite Japanese censorship, as a sort of variety show. From the beginning, producers were concerned to use ch’angguk to present a certain image of Koreanness to foreign audiences: a 1908 newspaper article testifies that ch’angguk was intended to show Korea to foreigners. A decline in the 1920s coincided with the rise of popularity of imported film and spoken drama (modelled on Japanese spoken drama). The latter was represented as ‘new drama’ and ch’angguk was thus cast as old drama. The 1930s revival of ch’angguk established the core features of the genre, which are still played out today – complete stories, fully theatrically realised, with elaborate stage sets.

An all-female version of ch’angguk developed in the 1950s, likely inspired by Japan’s Takarazuka company. This had a largely female fan-base and was felt to be a threat to male patriarchy, particularly as it took women out of the home.

The National Changgeuk Company of Korea was founded in 1962 and has remained a dominant force in the genre since. Over the decades, this nationally-funded company has developed a new repertoire, created plays for children, fashioned full-length versions of p’ansori repertoire items, employed Western-trained directors, experimented with different conventions while also fostering a traditional ethos.

The music of p’ansori constructs Korea as unified and autonomous by drawing together once disparate Korean musical genres, forms and instrumental combinations. At the same time, the plays (particularly those based on the five classical items of p’ansori) manifest Korean cultural worries about bodily penetration, related to national worries about penetration by foreign forces.

The talk was followed by a lively discussion about whether ch’angguk might achieve greater popularity abroad if it incorporated more Western artistic features, and also the dialectics of essentialism and epochalism (drawing on Geertz) in Korea compared to other Asian countries. Killick argued that only with the recent rise of Korean national cinema has Korea achieved a sense of cultural distinction and confidence of its creative prowess on the world stage.

(Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)

Andrew Killick received his BMus from the University of Edinburgh (1984),  MA in Ethnomusicology from the University of Hawaii (1990), and PhD in Music from the University of Washington (1998). He has taught at Illinois State University and Florida State University, and is now a Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield. He has served as president of the Society for Ethnomusicology Southeast and Caribbean Chapter, president of the Association for Korean Music Research, secretary of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, and co-editor of the BFE’s journal Ethnomusicology Forum. A specialist in the music and musical theatre of Korea, Killick was an associate editor and substantial contributor to the East Asia volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, and is also the author of In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’anggŭk (University of Hawaii Press, 2010). His research has been published in journals such as Ethnomusicology, Ethnomusicology Forum, Asian Music, and Korean Studies. He has also contributed major articles on popular musical theatre to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, and is currently pursuing a research interest in an English bagpipe, the Northumbrian smallpipes.

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