Ong Keng Sen’s Trojan Women opens in Singapore on 7 September, and I’m pretty stoked! The show’s had great reviews during its Korea run, thanks to its innovative blend of Greek tragedy, Korean opera and K-pop. It’ll be a bittersweet event, though, since it also marks the end of Keng Sen’s four-year tenure as Festival Director: a third act after his previous festival commissions, The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers <end link> (2015) and Sandaime Richard (2016).
With this in mind, I sat down with Keng Sen for an interview at the lobby bar of Rendezvous Hotel, next door to SOTA, where he was in rehearsal. Isn’t the decor darling?
NYS: Could you talk about the co-creator of this work, The National Theater of Korea?
The National Theater of Korea has got three parts: the National Dance Company, the National Orchestra Company and the National Changgeuk Company, for Korean opera.
People have asked me the difference between changgeuk and pansori. Pansori is a storytelling form with one singer and drummer. It’s epic singing: you tell the whole narrative with just one singer telling all the parts. Performers go around the countryside and live under very hard conditions. You remember a very old movie, Sopyonje? It’s about this pansori singer whose father blinds her so she’ll be with him forever.
Changgeuk is the modernised opera form of pansori: all the singers sing in the pansori style, but it’s been made into a modern opera form: they each sing characters rather than the storyteller singing all the roles.
The modernisation happened as with Chinese orchestras—Chinese orchestras never existed traditionally; they were a westernised form which used Chinese instruments in the western orchestra format. In the same way, changgeuk uses pansori singers in an opera style, and the instruments now form an entire orchestra.
NYS: I don’t know Sopyonje, but I did watch a movie about a pansori once: Chunhyang …
OKS: That’s the most famous pansori. There are five existing pansori s which are sung completely, because the whole text is available, and there are seven fragments. So in the pansori-changgeuk world, there’s only twelve pieces in the repertoire.
When I was asked to direct with the National Theatre of Korea, there was a big consideration: should I do an extant work? But I said, “Why don’t we increase the repertoire?”
I thought it would be great if we wrote a new changgeuk based on ancient Greek theatre—it would be great if in the future it becomes part of the repertoire, so it’s not just five plus seven pieces anymore. And I’m quite that the concept I gave them was we should have a pansori composer, and have something that can be brought into a pansori school and used for training.
NYS: But didn’t the National Changgeuk Company just stage Medea in 2013?
OKS: The thing about Medea was there was no pansori composer in it. They were all singing in a modern way. For want of a better comparison, it’s like Pavarotti singing a modern composer’s song rather than in an operatic style.
The difference is that we have Ms Anh Sook-sun, who is a pansori diva, a National Treasure—she is composing the pansori part. (There are two composers: one is Ms Anh and the other is the K-pop composer Jung Jae-il.)
Ms Anh composes orally: she has to sing every sing part and every single nuance herself. So whenever she does any singing, everyone whips out their cellphone to record her digitally. So on the one hand you have this oral composer without any notes, and on the other you have all these artists with their cellphones!
One day I got a call saying, “Oh my god, Ms Anh is composing until she’s coughing blood.” I said, “Please stop! What happened?” She had had to compose every single line twenty times to find the best nuance, and she had sung until one of her vocal cords burst and there was blood. And I said, “Is there another singer who can sing for her?” But with all oral traditions, you have to do it yourself.
NYS: When did work begin on this project?
Andre Serban, he did Chunhyang, and that was very controversial. This version was actually called Andrei Serban’s Different Chunhyang, because he reinvented Chunhyang to question the Confucian ethics in it. The character of Chunhyang has certain interactions where she tries to stay faithful to her husband forever and refuses to become the consort of the local governor. And there was all this questioning of this, because they felt she was in the traditional mode of a Confucian wife, waiting and waiting and waiting. In this version, she’s seen to be emancipated in a different way.
There were also lots of commentary about politics, because the character of the local governor was also like the last President Park’s father [Park Chung-hee], who was always known to have penchant for flirting with young girls and all sorts of corruption. During the whole regime, Koreans were quite severely censored. But Park was removed, and all’s well that ends well. Still, Different Chunhyang suffered from that, because there was a daring proposition about Chunhyang herself and the political background.
So when they approached me, I went there and I saw the productions, and they said, “We think you’d better not do a traditional pansori, because maybe if you try to be experimental with it, people will be upset with your version.” And I agreed. because, number one, I think when something has only five pieces left, everybody has a right to be very precious about it. And second, we don’t want to be stalled at such a basic premise. So I said, “Let’s just do something completely new.”
NYS: This isn’t your first time directing Trojan Women, is it?
OKS: In 1991 I did a Singapore version of Trojan Women with Nora Samosir as Hecuba, Cindy Sim as Cassandra and Tan Kheng Hua as Andromache. The whole thing was based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s adaptation of a European Greece colonising an Asian Troy, because it was his response to the French war in Vietnam. So the Europeans were the Greeks. So I cast expats in the roles of Helen and the Greeks: Kitty Barkley, David Foster… English language teachers in Singapore. We did this in the Dairy Farm Estate granite quarry, and it was fascinating, because we had a dawn performance. 300 people were bused into the quarry at 5 o’clock and the performance began at 5:30, and everyone had nasi lemak for breakfast.
I was asked by Sindie, in a recent issue, about what was theatre like in the 90s, before Gaurav says that theatre existed. I told him that we ran Trojan Women in a quarry for 3 weeks, and it sold out every night. If you want to talk about sustainability, we had serious audiences paying for an experimental production. They weren’t not high price tickets, but we could have 20,000 people paying $25 each to see something. So that’s half a million in box office. Nowadays we cannot even do that, unless you’re doing a musical. And life was much cheaper then, and making theatre was less expensive.
Really, in the 90s we had a core audience that was very serious and not so dilettantish. There’s so much happening in Singapore now, so it’s hard to spend time on anything. You see one show in every festival, you go to one event.
So I decided I would love to do Trojan Women again. I thought it would be very relevant for the Korean setting, because of the comfort women issue. It’s a seminal work about women during war, and we’ve always had this big question since Kuo Pao Kun wrote about it [in The Spirits Play]: in war, if you’re a man you become a soldier; if you’re a woman you become a prostitute, you become chattel.
And there’s a strange connection between Korean singing and Greek theatre because it’s so epic. Remember we saw Oedipus in SIFA 2014, and everyone was so moved: there’s something in Korean singing that can connect to this emotion.
NYS: So what was the response to the show like in Korea?
OKS: The response was tremendous. We opened on 1 November, and we played for two weeks.
I had proposed this concept of stripping away the changgeuk. It’s got all these layers, sometimes it fees like a musical, sometimes like a western opera, but I was interested in returning to the pansori roots, which is one singer and one musician. It was very controversial, but I likened it to stripping off the layers of paint in an old house to find the base architecture.
I suggested each character would have only one instrument supporting them. Hecuba and Cassandra and Andromache and Helen had a single instrument playing with them, instead of the entire Korean music ensemble. I also had a device on how to bring in the K-pop, because I had a very strong feeling in conceiving how should the musical be integrated into something more contemporary and pop.
The central thing for me was the role of Helen and the chorus: I saw Helen as a woman who follows her desire; she goes to Paris and she leaves Greece for Sparta. For me, she followed her own desire against all odds, against social norms.
When I googled Helen, I constantly saw the role as a blonde, blue-eyed voluptuous woman. And I was not interested in that. I felt this had nothing to say about a contemporary border character. She’s very transgressive. I wanted to focus on Helen and as a symbol of provocation, of difference. The women of Troy don’t accept her, because she’s the one who started the war. But she’s also not accepted in Greece, because she ran away and she was living with a very young prince—today we would say she’s a cougar.
I saw her as a border character between worlds, not accepted by any. So I decided to cast this male performer. I knew I wanted to have what I achieved in Singapore in 1991, with the Asian and white characters, but I can’t bring in a European performer because she couldn’t sing pansori. She could have sung opera but I felt it would be destroying the fabric of pansori.
So in the casting of it I casted a male pansori singer. And I didn’t realise what I was doing, but someone said to me, “Do you know what you have done? You have brought a transgender character into such a central role in the National Theatre of Korea.”
And it’s interesting, because pansori works on the natural voce. There are no scales of voice, of soprano and alto and tenor and baritone. That’s why all the women sing in quite low registers: in our socialised form, our voice is usually higher than our real voice.
So we decided to work with the natural voice of the male singer, which is quite low. And he’s accompanied by not a traditional instrument but a piano. The composer Jae-il performs on the piano with “her”, this male singer, and the two sing together, and both are men. Jae-il who plays the piano is almost like Paris. It’s beautiful, very gorgeous, very queer.
Of course, I knew she had to be a border character and a provocation, but I did this without batting an eyelid, without asking the National Theatre. Because of course as a director I realised what it means, but if the National Theatre was not going to stop me, I was not going to stop. I viewed it completely aesthetically, but of course I am unsurprised at the politics that people see, though that was not my main intention.
Still, the form lends itself to the interpretation. I see Helen singing as the voice of love, and this voice crosses all borders. And for me this is especially relevant in Singapore, if you think about Pink Dot, and the whole controversy at Cathay [Cineplex], which is just across from us. Helen stands for the freedom to love, and she lived in sin with Paris and everybody who was socialised gossiped about her, be it Trojan or Greek.
Helen’s duet with Paris is a very brazen and contemporary moment, where we have a man and a man singing a love duet with a baby grand. And during that time the lights are all white, no darkness, no shadows from a projector. It’s a very brazen provocation about the freedom to love. When I did this last year the whole Pink Dot controversy had not occurred. But when this person whispered to me, “Do you know what you’re doing?”, I was like, OK….
NYS: Could we talk about the K-pop, though? What’s it doing in the chorus?
OKS: It was mainly because I was interested in the narrative of what happens to African music when it goes across from the Americas. It became gospel music among slaves in the South, candomblé in Brazil, and eventually jazz with Billie Holiday and rap. K-pop is coming from a totally different consciousness of African music. And I felt the chorus music had to be newly composed and not pansori.
NYS: How is the music divided then?
OKS: Ms Anh composes the regal characters, the court characters. (Helen is a mix of both: the liens are pansori but it’s accompanied by piano, and it’s really a scintillating combination of the two composers collaborating for Helen.)
The chorus is this modernised musical element of what happens to pansori in the future, as they follow Trojan women who become slaves in Greek palaces. And this is what will happen to the future of pansori if it’s not protected, if it’s not preserved in its iconic form but thrown to the market forces.
And to me what’s interesting in Korea is you see the connection to pansori to shaman music, to K-pop. This is a culture that expresses itself through singing and music. I have no doubt that this is the same when it looks at African American music and jazz. Why was it that in whites-only clubs, black singers were singing? Because this was the lodestone of expression of people of African descent.
In 1998 when I went to Korea for the first time and I saw Ms Anh. And one thing I told a Korean, who was quite insulted, was: “I can’t really tell the difference between Japanese and Korean performing arts.” They said to me, “We are very different, because Japanese art forms are always about becoming classical, and Korea is about folk.”
So I studied more and more shaman music, I went to see shamans, I went to the beach to join big ceremonies and rituals. I was there for 5 weeks, and I realised the energy of Korea is all in folk, not like noh and kabuki where it’s about being very precious. A fan by a kabuki performer can cost $10,000. But for the Koreans it’s about this joie de vivre in folk performance. They’re high quality performances, but it’s all about coming together.
So I couldn’t have done this show without going to Korea in 1998 to do research for the Flying Circus Project.
NYS: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
OKS: Enchantment is about stories that remain with us through time, and we always think of enchantment as beautiful fairy tales, but it’s also about important things that we remember.
Trojan Women is one of these stories of enchantment. It’s very tragic but it’s a constant reminder of the dignity of the human being and the women, which Homer was intrigued by because the Trojan War in 1200 BCE. Such a story intrigued Homer to write it down later [in 750 BCE], and he wrote it as an old tale. And Euripides rewrote it in a play for the Epidaurus drama festivals in 450 BCE. So you see a translation of a life story to Homer to Euripides to now in Korea. So for me this is the power of enchantment. It continues from 3,200 years ago to now.
For me, many people have said to me the season is so much about these terrible stories about the human being, like how Trump is a terrible blight, but we remain enchanted to tell these eternal stories… So I think that for me that’s what this season of Enchantment has become. A way to connect to certain essentials, to connect the human being and the sanctity of that during war.