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The Pansori Tradition

Sometimes called Korean opera, pansori is a form of storytelling by a singer and a drummer. The sorrikkun (the singer, or "noisemaker") tells a story (usually a satire or a love story) while the gosu (drummer) beats out the rhythm and sometimes makes short sounds of encouragement (called chuimsae) as the story is told. Members of the audience also belt out short words or sounds as well. A full story or madang, with alternating speaking parts (anili) and singing parts (chang), can take hours (sometimes 4 to 5) to complete. The singer holds a fan in one hand and uses it for emphasis, to show emotion and indicated changes of scene.

Originating during the middle of the Joseon Period (1392-1910), pansori began as part of the oral tradition by traveling performers. Although performers were considered low-class by the aristocrats, by the end of the Joseon Dynasty, the yangban began to appreciate the pansori performances. Due to its oral nature (it was usually passed down from person to person and not written), of the original 12 pansori madang only 5 remain today -- "Simcheong-ga," "Chunhyang-ga," "Heungbuga," "Jeokyeokga," and "Sugung-ga." In 2003, UNESCO added pansori to its list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The Legend of Chunhyang

The story of Chunhyang, Chunhyang-ga, is one of a handful of surviving Korean pansori, in which a performer sings a story while a drummer sets the rhythm. Korea's version of Romeo and Juliet is about Chunhyang, the daughter of a gisaeng, a female entertainer for government officials akin to a Japanese geisha, who falls in love with Mong-ryong, the son of a magistrate.

The two marry in secret, but Mong-ryong is forced to return to Seoul to finish his education. While he is away, a local magistrate tries to force Chunhyang to be his concubine. She refuses and is thrown into prison, tortured, and sentenced to death. At the last minute, Mong-ryong returns disguised as a beggar (but in fact a secret royal inspector) and rescues her.

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