Ong-nyeo lost her first husband when she was fifteen.
That’s how the story goes, anyway. In the ancient Korean pansori epic Byeongangsoe-ga, she’s a cursed woman in a cautionary tale about hubris and its consequences. In the American premiere of Na-rae Lee’s withering remake Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Ong-nyeo was transformed into a tragic heroine whose bravery in defying patriarchal norms leads to a grisly fate. Exactly what that fate was, star pansori singer Lee left to the audience to figure out. But the message was clear: in a misogynistic society, the perils a woman faces when she gains power over men can be treacherous to the extreme.
Considering how male-centric pansori narratives typically are, Lee acknowledges that there’s considerable irony in her choice of career, especially given her advocacy for women’s rights. So she decided to reinvent the tale of Byeongangsoe from his long-suffering wife’s point of view.
Lee sang that role and several others in Korean with a feral intensity, meticulously modulating a torrential vibrato that took on more power the further down the scale she went. English supertitles helped immensely. She was backed by an excellent, eclectic band – Hwayoung Lee on gayageum zither, Gina Hwang on geomungo bass zither, and Simun Lee on acoustic guitar – who began the show with unexpectedly subtle variations on an ominous chromatic riff that they would eventually turn into slightly muted doom metal when the guitarist kicked in with a primitive distortion effect.
The traditional version of the fable casts Ong-nyeo as a tragic character cursed to watch a succession of husbands die, often very gruesomely, since she’s too beautful for her own good. Na-rae Lee has recast her as defiant and fearless as she goes through man after man, curse be damned. Likewise, the one dude she thinks will help her reverse the curse, Byeongangsoe, is traditionally cast as a cartoonish, Falstaffian type. Here, the bandleader tore off the clown mask to reveal him as a smalltime thug who beats up on his wife since he’s not very good at picking on anyone his own size.
Throughout the show, there seemed to be a great deal of improvisation, often hectic, sometimes frantic or sepulchrally sinister, the music matching the narrative. Pensive, bossa-tinged folk-pop set the stage for the meeting between the two lovers; the ensuing marathon sex scene (sans disrobing) got plenty of droll bed-shaking effects. A lament for what Ong-nyeo ‘s scrub of a husband could have been – after the gods’ verdict took its grisly toll on him – brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most vampy, with a biting gayageum solo. Byeongangsoe’s main theme, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a loopy march.
In her bright red dress, the singer held the crowd rapt. From a plaintive, understated, wordless lament, to throaty, shamanistic interludes where she turned loose a wide vibrato that approached diesel engine power and rumble, Lee spanned a range that even pansori singers seldom tackle. As the drama grew more grisly and the bodies piled up – this is a horror story of Gogolian proportions – the lighting went completely red several times, Lee scurrying furtively, then horrified, from one end of the stage to the other. A last-gasp attempt at an exorcism backfired spectacularly as the band played quasi trip-hop and then finally a dejected waltz. The audience sat stunned as the group let the music die away.
The performance was co-sponsored by the tireless folks at the Korean Cultural Service, who bring some amazing talent to this country: if only the US government advocated for American artists with a fraction of the Koreans’ tenacity! The next performance at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is tomorrow night, May 16 at 7:30 PM. an entertaining annual multimedia event featuring an allstar cast from film and tv reading provocative selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.