Home World NewsKorea [Herald Interview] ‘Salome’ director Kim Si-hwa adds bold twist to changgeuk with all-male act

[Herald Interview] ‘Salome’ director Kim Si-hwa adds bold twist to changgeuk with all-male act

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“Salome” (Arts Council Korea)

It might have been her directional debut in changgeuk, but former choreographer Kim Si-hwa was prepared to push the boundaries with “Salome.”

In an interview with The Korea Herald, last week, Kim said she was aiming for a groundbreaking traditional performance. She had thought of an all-male changgeuk for a while, believing it could be appealing to the audience.

Changgeuk derives from pansori, a traditional narrative singing form involving a solo singer and a percussionist that is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is typically performed with a mixed cast.

“I participated as both a director and a producer in this production. From a producer’s perspective, I thought a fresh attempt was necessary to captivate the audience,” said Kim.

Director Kim Si-hwa (second from right) watches a rehearsal for

Director Kim Si-hwa (second from right) watches a rehearsal for “Salome.” (Arts Council Korea)

The choice of “Salome” was recommended by writer-director Koh Sun-woong, whom Kim first met in 2019 during the Jeonbuk State Gugak Center’s production of “Mansebae deoneumjeon” as choreographer. The two met again at the National Changgeuk Company of Korea’s “Rabbit’s Eight Sufferings” (2022) with Koh as director and Kim as assistant director.

“Koh recommended the play ‘Salome’ (by Oscar Wilde) and the story was a complete ‘makjang.’ It was really intense but had a gripping narrative. I thought that the story could go well with the grief and wailing inherent in pansori.”

“Makjang” is a Korean term that refers to a story that features dramatic plot twists, intense emotions, and larger-than-life characters and often involves unethical actions.

Koh undertook the adaptation, with a twist to the ending and taking the madness and human desires to more extreme levels.

“Each character has their own narrative and when those stories collide, it provides a more tragic and emotionally profound impact,” Kim said. “In particular, the character of Menad (played by Kim Su-in) is gender-swapped, adding a new layer of relationship with Herodias. All characters become intertwined like a web.”

“Salome” (Arts Council Korea)

Tempted by the challenges of the first-ever male-only changgeuk, some renowned stars in the traditional music scene joined in, including pansori stars Kim Jun-soo, Yu Tae-pyung-yang and Kim Soo-in. Fashion designer Lie Sang Bong joined the production as costume designer.

Kim said she had concerns about presenting an all-male changgeuk. Kim said she encouraged flexibility and asked actors not to be confined to “traditionally” female characteristics.

“We paid a lot of attention to making it feel natural and not so uncomfortable to the audience. I told the actors to simply be the characters — not to confine their gestures or tone of voice to the frame of being a woman. If you want to walk while kicking a skirt, you could do so, and if a male voice comes out when you scream, it’s okay. Everything was allowed,” she explained.

“Salome” (Arts Council Korea)

Another risk Kim took is that not all performers are pansori singers. Some are musical actors and stage actors, as the music also blended Korean traditional and Western classical elements.

“When I first heard the music in the initial composition stage, I felt that it was somewhat opera-like and musical-like at the same time,” she recalled. “I thought this could result in a more diverse and vibrant sound.”

The production is among this year’s 28 new performances funded by Arts Council Korea, an organization committed to fostering diverse arts and cultural activities in the country, and the debut performances held in Daehangno from Feb. 2-4 were sold out.

“Salome” will be performed again with the same cast at the Gangdong Arts Center on April 19-20, except Kim Jun-soo. Yoon Je-won takes on the role of Salome as one cast. English subtitles will be available.

“Be it in that period or the present day, there’s not much difference. All the desires are simmering. Yet, within the changgeuk, we cast all those yearnings into a well and set them on fire,” Kim said, referring to the final scene. “I hope that such wicked desires will disappear. This, perhaps, might be the ultimate message of the production.”

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