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Singaporean director blends Greek tragedy and Korean opera in 'Trojan Women' remake

 
Countless plays and literary pieces have been inspired by Homer's epic Illiad, from the golden apple that bred jealousy... to the wooden horse that set Troy aflame.
 
One of them, "The Trojan Women," a Greek tragedy from 415 BC that has been re-imagined in a traditional Korean performance genre.
 
Our Hwang Hojun has the story.
 
"The Trojan Women" follows the fates of the women of Troy after their city has been sacked and their husbands killed, and they are about to be taken away as slaves.
 
Now, the story is being retold with a Korean twist in a new production that relies on changgeuk, a traditional genre similar to what could be thought of as Korean opera. "This production of 'The Trojan Women' premieres here, at the National Theater of Korea's Daloreum Theater on Friday night. The show, presented in collaboration with the Singapore International Festival of Arts, distinguishes itself from other modern changgeuk productions via its minimalist approach."
 
The production was developed by Ong Keng Sen, a Singaporean theater director, and Ahn Sook-sun, one of Korea's Living National Treasures for her Pansori.
 
Their goal was to introduce the Korean art of pansori, the narrative singing genre on which changgeuk is based.
Staying true to the production's minimalist concept, all of the elements were stripped down to their essence.
 
singapore korean theatre production
 
The costumes are all in white or gray, solely to distinguish between the Trojans and the Greeks.
 
There are no flashy stage settings -- just a white gateway to ultimately transport the women into their misery. "I want to hear the words. I want to be inside of the imagination of words. Right? Because you can never show war. You cannot show dead bodies around on stage. You cannot show the devastation. So, everything is imagined in the mind of the audience. And so we need to hear the words, but I also believe very much that the less we put on stage, the clearer we can imagine." Ong says it's the breaking of the human voice that gives pansori its haunting beauty, enabling the actors to deliver the strong emotions demanded by the play.
 
And just as with traditional pansori, where the singer is accompanied only by a single drum, each character in the opera has its very own instrument.
 
For example, the widow Andromache, who loses her son, is matched with the ajaeng, a bowed zither with a sound that's similar to weeping.
 
Helen, welcomed in neither Troy nor Greece, is portrayed by a man and sings along with the only nontraditional instrument in the show, the piano.
 
And Hecuba, the matriarch of the story? "Playing Hecuba, the queen of Troy, I was paired with the geomungo, a traditional Korean zither. It has a very low and majestic sound, so it compliments Hecuba's speaking style. It definitely helped me get into character."
 
The changgeuk version of the play captures the main elements of a Greek tragedy, including the role of fate and the integration of the chorus.
 
But more than anything, the emotions stirred by the rawness of the voices on stage culminate into the essence of a Greek tragedy -- catharsis. "The text is based on Western literature. But this performance mainly features pansori, the 'Korean voice.' And I think it does it accurately and it does it well. And I'm grateful to be a part of it."
 
The production will run until November 20th and is also set to be presented at the Singapore International Festival of Arts next year.
 

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