Singer Lee Narae's upcoming show at the David Rubenstein Atrium, "A cursed woman, Ong-nyeo," recharges the traditional Korean art form of pansori—which combines music and storytelling—with contemporary creative energy. In advance of the performance, Hyo Han, Program Director of Performing Arts at the Korean Cultural Center New York, spoke to Lee about her influences, her artistic path, and what she hopes to communicate through her work.

Hyo Han: How did you decide to study Korean music, especially pansori?

Lee Narae: I grew up in a very small rural village in the area of Gochang, North Jeolla Province, which is located in the southwest region of South Korea. It was not unusual for me to encounter Korean traditional music in my daily life because the region is especially well known as a place where traditional music is alive and well.

One day, when I was eight years old, a neighbor who lived next door was practicing pansori as a hobby, and I happened to hear her practicing her pansori vocals. As soon as I heard the sound, I had an incredible experience where I felt like my heart suddenly sank down into my stomach! So, the very next day I started following my neighbor to learn pansori and the gayageum [string zither].

Since no one in my family studied or majored in Korean music or even any other art genres, all of my family members were curious to know why I was attracted to pansori in particular, and especially where my skills had come from. One day, my father told me that, in fact, my grandfather had actually taught me Korean songs when I was a baby. So I think that I felt a familiarity with Korean traditional music and accepted it as fate thanks to my grandfather.

HH: What can audiences expect from your show at the Atrium?

LN: "A cursed woman, Ong-nyeo," is a solo musical and dance theater piece with a live accompaniment of gayageum, geomungo, and guitar. The story is based on a pansori piece called Byeongangsoe-ga ["Story of Byeongangsoe"] that had been traditionally performed through the perspective of the male character; however, this performance turns that around and tells the story through the view of the female character, Ong-nyeo.

HH: Can you tell us more about Ong-nyeo and Byeongangsoe?

LN: In the modern era, the character of Byeongangsoe in a movie or drama is portrayed as a man with a large penis, which is recognized to many Koreans as a comical character. But in fact, Byeongangsoe is not only a character representing a "macho" image, but also a lazy and problematic character with a violent tendency that goes beyond the sexual image.

Ong-nyeo is a famous female character who was well known in the northern region of the country because of her outstanding beauty. However, she lived a cursed life, wandering from village to village because every man she married would die. She finally meets Byeongangsoe, who is known for his laziness and incompetence, in the south of the country. She marries him and dreams of a hopeful future, but Byeongangsoe is only interested in gambling, and he abuses her frequently. One day, Byeongangsoe goes to the mountains to cut lumber, and he mistakenly cuts a jangseung [totem pole]. He is cursed because of this mistake and dies from severe illness. Before he dies, Byeongangseo also curses Ong-nyeo by saying that she must die along with him and that he would kill every man who approached her after his death.

Even though she is cursed, there are still many men who want to live with Ong-nyeo, but they all die, one after another, once they encounter the extremely gruesome corpse of Byeongangsoe.

HH: Why did you choose to reinterpret this work from Ong-nyeo's viewpoint? 

LN: Since I was a little girl, I grew up exposed to many discriminations and dangers simply due to the fact that I was a woman, not a man. My grandfather did not give a single glance to me until my younger brother was born because I was a girl, and I was not allowed go near the jesa [traditional ancestral rites] area even though it was the women who made all the preparations and food all day long for the service. 

Since I was a child, this kind of natural discrimination I received at home, in school, and in society, felt strange to me and I thought it was unfair. But then I realized that the perhaps the strangest part of all was in the very topic of pansori that I was studying.

I found that the depiction of women in pansori and their thoughts were totally different from what I was thinking; I fell into a dilemma as an artist who had to sing and share the script with the public. So I began to study deeply the history of pansori, and one day, I read "Byeongangsoe-ga," one that was passed down to modern times. I thought that here was a work where discrimination against women and a sort of "witch hunting" element was most prominent. So I decided, with a kind of rebelliousness, to make this work, reconstructing the story from the viewpoint of Ong-nyeo, the woman who was sacrificed.

HH: Is there a special meaning behind the red dress you wear in the performance?

LN: Ong-nyeo is a character who suffers from the misfortune of others, wearing the stigma of a woman who is a widow and, in a sense, “eats” her husbands. People blame her unreasonably for her fate and misfortunes, and connect that with the fact that she was born a great beauty. I am wearing a red dress to symbolize Ong-nyeo’s tragic situation: death following her throughout her life.

HH: Now let’s talk more about you. What would you say when makes "Lee Narae’s pansori" special? What does pansori mean to you?

LN: I create work not only based on the traditional musical characteristics of pansori, but with various Korean traditional vocal elements and genres. And since one vocalist, I, sings, and these  techniques and methods are fused and re-implemented, some audience feel that my pansori sound is very unique. At the same time, some people ask why I perform other musical elements instead of singing original pansori, even though I am a sorikun. I think that since pansori already has lots of different vocal elements fused in it, I have just expanded its existing characteristics. 

I think of pansori as my “guide” to lead me into new worlds. When I was younger, I felt like I escaped into the world of pansori away from the worldly stresses. But now that I’ve been doing it for 26 years, with pansori as my own roots, it is now expanding to act as a bridge (or stem) to connect me to new worlds. I am very curious how and where pansori will lead me in the future.

HH: How would you describe “a superb sorikun"? What skills should one have to be the best?

LN: I think a sorikun who has their own ideas and thoughts and standards can rise to be among the best. Since pansori is a genre of traditional music, it is taught in the beginning to follow the old standards and skills, or to learn by imitating pansori masters. But in continuing in this way, it is easy to fall into a lack of creativity or not to challenge yourself to make your own style. I must think about what my style and identity is as a sorikun in order to be the best—not only in musical skills, but also in performance skills. As an artist, I think it’s very important to continue to struggle about what my "identity” is, especially now when there are so many talented sorikun and vocalists in the field.  

HH: Can you give listening tips to those who have never encountered pansori before?

LN: Whenever I perform pansori in front of a new audience, especially in a foreign country, I often feel a language barrier since pansori lyrics are in Korean. It would be tremendously helpful to enjoy pansori if you read the synopsis before coming to the show. Especially in my show, there are multiple interesting elements to take in, because not only do I sing and narrate the story, but I act, dance, and encourage audience participation. Knowing the plot beforehand can allow you to better sense the rhythmical communications and energy between me and my gosu [drummer accompanist].

HH: What's the one thing you'd like the New York audience to learn?

LN: I am assuming that most of the audience will come to see the show with a sense of curiosity. But after seeing my show, I hope that your curiosity will turn into interest in pansori!

HH: Any future performances or projects?

LN: In October, I will perform pansori accompanied by the New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra in Boston. It's called The Pansori Cantata Project. Right now I'm not sure exactly kind of performance it will be, but I'm thrilled to try a new style of work!

I also formed a band early this year called INalchi. INalchi is composed of five sorikun, two bass guitar players, and one drummer. We’ve been practicing the revised version of pansori “Sugung-ga” which we'll perform at various venues and festivals in Korea. 

“A cursed woman, Ong-nyeo” has been invited to perform in Germany for two weeks next January. And I am steadily implementing several creative pansori projects with films, dances, and other music genres. Hopefully I can finish another one my own pieces after Ong-nyeo this year! 

HH: What is your motto as an artist?

LN: I always ask myself: Am I enjoying my work now? Is it fun? Is it the right thing to do?

If I enjoy what I do, I believe the public will feel that energy from me. I am constantly asking myself whether I am going to the right direction and at the same time, I try to have a warm heart for others and for the world. I try to be always awake in my life by constantly studying and experiencing new things.

HH: What is your dream?

LN: Well, first of all, this is my very first visit to the U.S.! I would like to have more opportunities to visit other countries and perform my work for people around the world. At the same time, I would like to meet different artists and collaborate with them. Through these new experiences, I hope to become an artist who consistently grows and develops. I would like to be able to communicate with other people and communities through my worksand I hope this idea will not change for the rest of my life!

"A cursed woman, Ong-nyeo" is presented in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center New York and in partnership with Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center.

International tour support provided by the Korea Arts Management Service’s Center Stage Korea Program.