Did I just hear him correctly?
“Do you understand what he said?”
How do I even answer that?
That small lie might just save me I think, as I ease back into my chair.
“He wants you to sing”
I dissolve into a blabbering nervous wreck, reverting immediately to my awkward teenaged self. The one who was constantly chastised by Mrs. Schenk the choir master for not keeping my legs at a masculine distance from one another when I stood on the stage. My pre-Suzuki body that had little to no idea what it was doing at any point in time.
I had just been the subject of an extended introduction to the assembled cast and directorial team of The National Changgeuk Company of Korea. Thirty or so actors who have most likely been singing pansori their entire lives. There are very few members under 30 – I know, because I have exchanged shy smiles with the only fellow that seems a similar age to me. It turns out he is playing “Dongho as a child”, the brother of Songwha, the pansori protege whose story the show follows.
My teacher Minah had been out brushing her teeth when my call to the stage happened. She walks in as I am stumbling forward and I look at her with pleading eyes. There is nothing she can do for me now.
Kim Grace Hyejong, the company producer who had been responsible for the introduction is explaining to me that the music for Seopyeonjae has been adapted from traditional repertoire – the Shimcheongga epic in particular – with the two stories poetically interwoven in this staged version of the blockbuster Korean film. The director Yoon Hojin – a man of mature age, resplendant in periwinkle trousers and a crushed lilac coat of a traditional cut – would like to hear me sing something from Shimcheongga that I have learned from Minah. And actually is not taking “I’m too embarrassed” as an excuse.
I take a deep breath, dash to my floral backpack for my notebook, walk to the centre of the vast rehearsal studio and open my mouth. The company gosu (drummer) starts to play, and the assembled company yell out chuimsae, or words of encouragement.
These are words that I teach my students along with basic Korean dance sequences, and they are now buoying me along. For all I know, I’m probably singing too fast, soft, or too forcedly harsh, without the nuanced flavour of geneul – the holding of opposing qualities in the voice at the same time. But at least I am singing.
And this is the story of how I sang for Ahn Sook Sun – one of the most famous of the living pansori singers and a National Living Treasure. She plays the elderly Songhwa and is, of course, in rehearsal today. The first thing on the schedule is a run through of the second act, the finale of which features her as the blind singer, crying out to her father as if he had died just this moment, and not a lifetime ago.
But all that is in the future, now I am screeching like a heavily smoking deer in the headlights. Ever since she entered the room I hadn’t been able to keep my eyes off her. She was afforded the lowest of bows by the company as she entered the room, which she graciously waved off as she took her seat next to the director and began reviewing her script.
But I wasn’t brave enough to look at her as I sang. In fact, I realise later that I faced the cast to the side of the stage for the duration of my item – rather than the directing team. It was the cast who were yelling the encouragement anyway. I sang one page’s worth of the funeral song and then made a very quick exit to a flattering round of applause. It was joked that I should have a role in the production.
But as it is a period piece I don’t think I’ll really fit in.
Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowships are an initiative of Brisbane City Council. This project is supported by Asialink and Arts Queensland.