Changguk, Korean “Opera”

Video clip: Changguk; allots the characters of the phansori stories to several actors Veli Rosenberg

Changguk is a form of sung drama evolved from phansori storytelling. Originally, they shared a common repertoire and musical style. In phansori one singer acts both as the narrator and is also responsible for the lines of the various characters, whereas in changguk the parts are allotted to several actor-singers. Their movement technique has a gentle, dance-like quality. While phansori is accompanied by a single drummer, a small orchestra accompanies changguk.

The History

Changguk came into being in the urban context in the early 20th century. Visiting Chinese opera troupes awakened an interest in Korean sung drama. The novelty was based on the phansori tradition. Changguk was originally performed by professional, male and female phansori singers. According to the Chinese stage conventions, no stage décor was used.

In the early 20th century the Royal Theatre in Seoul employed famous phansori stars for its changguk productions. The troupe was dissolved and performances were given again after 1910. Then the productions employed an illusory décor, inspired by Western theatre. Besides the traditionally folk epics that belonged to the phansori repertoire, new plays were also adapted for changguk.

New Trends

Western stage realism became fashionable in Korea in the 1930s. The scenography of changguk productions became more dominating and the Western-trained theatre directors also added realistic, spoken dialogue to their productions. The following two decades are seen as changguk’s golden age.

The productions gradually became increasingly grandiose, partly because of the growth of the theatre buildings. All the folk epics in the phansori repertoire were dramatized for changguk, while new dramas were also created. Finally large dance and chorus scenes together with the heavy décor swallowed changguk’s original intimacy.

In the 1960s the National Changgkuk Troupe was founded in connection with the Korean National Theatre. It aims both to adapt changguk for the many large modern stages, while it also tries to maintain the original, small-scale performance tradition.