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'Merchants of Venice' meets Korean traditional opera

By Park Ga-young

Published : May 23, 2023 - 20:08

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Top pansori singers Kim Jun-su (left) and Yu Taepyeongyang will portray Shylock and Antonio, respectively, for a Top pansori singers Kim Jun-su (left) and Yu Taepyeongyang will portray Shylock and Antonio, respectively, for a "changgeuk" interpretation of "The Merchants of Venice." (National Theater of Korea)

William Shakespeare’s famous play "The Merchant of Venice," will be reborn as "changgeuk," a traditional Korean opera, next month, with a contemporary twist.

From June 8 to 11, the National Changgeuk Company of Korea will present the first changgeuk adaption of “The Merchant of Venice,” a highly anticipated production that has brought together renowned theater creators and talented "pansori" performers.

“The Changgeuk Company has made numerous attempts at new endeavors in the past, not only modernizing the five surviving stories of pansori and adapting them into contemporary styles, but also exploring various genres such as Greek tragedies, Shakespearean plays and even webtoons,” director Lee Sung-yol, said. “However, this is our first attempt at a traditional comedy. If this endeavor in traditional comedy proves successful, I believe the company can continue to expand its scope and pioneer further in this genre,” he said.

The contemporary adaptation of the play also marks the changgeuk debut of award-winning playwright Kim Eun-sung. “For years, watching changgeuk by the Changgeuk Company has been a great pleasure and I believe they have reached its peak: the actors are incredibly talented and radiated beauty and vitality, and every production was flawlessly executed,” Kim said. “When I was asked to join the project, I accepted without hesitation,” he added.

From left: Music director Won Il, playwright Kim Eun-sung, director Lee Sung-yol, artistic director of the National Changgeuk Company of Korea Yu Eun-seon and pansori singers Yu Taepyungyang, Min Eun-kyung and Kim Jun-su pose for photos during a press conference on Thursday. (National Theater of Korea) From left: Music director Won Il, playwright Kim Eun-sung, director Lee Sung-yol, artistic director of the National Changgeuk Company of Korea Yu Eun-seon and pansori singers Yu Taepyungyang, Min Eun-kyung and Kim Jun-su pose for photos during a press conference on Thursday. (National Theater of Korea)

Emerging pansori singers, including Yu Taepyungyang and Kim Jun-su, will be on stage to execute the Changgeuk Company’s first comedy.

In this rendition, the themes of racial discrimination and religious tensions present in the original play are replaced by the power struggle between Shylock, a wealthy shipowner in Venice, and Antonio, the leader of a small merchants' union. Antonio borrows money from Shylock under the condition that, in case of default, Shylock may take a pound (0.45 kilograms) of Antonio's flesh near his heart. The story gets more interesting as other vivid characters join the stage.

The performance will also combine pansori and elements of pop music, with the help of changgeuk composer Han Seung-seok and music director Won Il.

"The Merchant of Venice" will serve as one pillar of the Changgeuk Company's two-track strategy, which aims to create productions rooted in Korea's own culture and identity, while also delivering high-quality works based on universal stories, according to Yu Eun-seon, the artistic director of the National Changgeuk Company of Korea.

"The Merchant of Venice” will be performed from June 8 to 11 at Haeoreum Grand Theater at the National Theater of Korea. Ticket prices range from 20,000 won to 80,000 won and English subtitles will be provided.

While pansori is performed by a singer-storyteller completing the entire song with a drummer, changgeuk, formed in the early 20th century, includes a whole cast of pansori singers taking on the roles of different characters in the story and addressing each other in spoken and sung dialogue.