National Theater of Korea staging 'King Lear' and 'Prince Hodong'

National Changgeuk Company's "King Lear," left, and Korea National Opera's "Prince Hodong," right, will be staged next month at the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul. [NATIONAL CHANGGEUK COMPANY, KOREA NATIONAL OPERA]

Next month at the National Theater of Korea, two tragic tales of a ruler of a country will be staged by two different state-run companies — the National Changgeuk Company and the Korea National Opera.

One is Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the other is “Prince Hodong,” a Korean traditional tale surrounding Prince Hodong of Goguryeo (37 B.C. to A.D. 668).

It comes as no surprise that the National Changgeuk Company of Korea that has a wide repertoire of great Korean classics turned into Korean traditional opera known as changgeuk, is staging “Prince Hodong,” while the Korea National Opera that has been staging great operatic works like Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalia” is staging Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

But it’s actually the other way around.

To celebrate its 60th anniversary, the Korea National Opera is bringing back “Prince Hodong,” which the company premiered in 1962 to commemorate the establishment of the state-run opera troupe. It’s sung in Korean as the story is based on the story of Prince Hodong and Princess of Nakrang in “Samguksagi,” or “The Chronicles of the Three States.”

Princess Nakrang in "Prince Hodong" by the Korea National Opera [KNO]
An image of what Korea National Opera's upcoming production of "Prince Hodong" will look like. [KNO]

This story is set during the reign of Daemunsin of Goguryeo, the father of Prince Hodong. Princess Nakrang falls in love with the handsome prince and the two get married. The prince tells his wife to destroy a sacred drum of her kingdom Nakrang called Jamyunggo and then he will truly think of her as his wife. For Nakrang, Jamyunggo was a mythical drum that protected its kingdom. Goguryeo had previously been defeated by Nakrang after the drum had alerted the Nakrang army of the invasion. Ultimately, with the drum destroyed, Nakrang gets attacked by Goguryeo and Choi Ri, the king of Nakrang kills his own daughter for betraying her own kingdom.

When the work was premiered 60 years ago, it was well-received by critics and audience members for its “solid structure and great music.” The Korea National Opera attempts to recreate this 2,000-year-old tale on stage but this time, the director plans to go back and forth between the real story and folk tales and add a modern twist.

“I agonized a lot whether it would be better to restore this great classical work or to reinterpret the work to suggest something for the future. I thought a lot about how the audience of this era could hear the story and approach it,” said Han Seung-won, the director. “I came to the conclusion that if the work has to be reinterpreted, it needs a clear reason. I tried very hard to express the emotions of today while drawing on the era 2,000 years ago. I think the key is to make sure the audience feels and sympathizes with the emotions felt by the actors on stage who are expressing the emotions of the characters of 2,000 years ago.”

Tenors Lee Seung-mook and Kim Dong-won will alternate the role of Prince Hodong while sopranos Park Hyun-joo and Kim Soon-young alternate the role of Princess Nakrang. There’s going to be a narrator as well to tell the story on stage, which will be done by traditional Korean singers Kim Mi-jin and Seo Eui-cheol. The performance will be staged on March 11 and 12 at the Haeoreum Theater of the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul, and will also be streamed online. It begins at 7:30 p.m. on both nights.

National Changgeuk Company members who will perform in its upcoming production of "King Lear" [NATIONAL CHANGGEUK COMPANY]
A concept photograph for its upcoming production of "King Lear" by the National Changgeuk Company [NATIONAL CHANGGEUK COMPANY]

As for the National Changgeuk Company, the famous tale of “King Lear” has been recreated as a traditional Korean opera changgeuk. It’s a new piece written by playwright Bae Sam-sik, who wrote “Trojan Women,” which has become one of the company’s hit repertoire after its premiere in 2016.

According to the company, the tragic life of a human being depicted in Shakespeare’s original story is woven together with the teachings of Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, in particular his comparisons to life and water.

“Lao Tzu must have thought that life is not clear-cut and can’t easily be judged. Naturally, water, which forms the most important image in his philosophy became the foundation for this work,” said Bae during a press conference on Feb. 23 at the National Theater of Korea. “Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ also is about the end of life that we all want to avoid, but eventually have to face. If you can sympathize and feel pity toward such beings who have no choice but to eventually disappear from this world, this story will have enough meaning.”

Using Bae’s storyline, pansori (traditional Korean narrative singing) composer Han Seung-seok composed the lyrics for the singers while music is written by Jung Jae-il. Han said he concentrated on creating sounds that contain hatred, madness and ruins and used some parts of Gyeonggi minyo, or folk songs from Gyeonggi region, to create them. Jung said he combined the sounds from Korean traditional and Western instruments using virtual musical instrument software to create a new kind of sound for the upcoming work.

Popular pansori singer Kim Jun-su will play the role of Lear. He’s only 31, but director Jung Young-doo said, “after watching Kim portraying Lear during rehearsals, my doubts about his age were all gone and I am certain that the audience members will feel the same.”

The changgeuk version of “King Lear” will be staged at the Daloreum Theater of the National Theater of Korea from March 17 to 27.