Cha Ji-yeon learns to live with suffering in final ‘Seopyeonjae’ run
German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche famously said that to live is to suffer. But is there a way to avoid that suffering?
Musical “Seopyeonjae” says there isn’t. But this bleak answer is oddly consoling after sitting through a 150-minute show about the toils of a family struggling with heartbreaking pain that only seems to get worse as each member sets out to find their own passion.
The homegrown musical is best known as a show about pansori, a Korean traditional genre of music dating back to the 17th century. With just one singer and drummer, the genre is characterized with lyrics that tell a narrative with an expressive, sometimes speech-like, singing style.
The ongoing fifth production, which opened in August, will actually be the last run.
The license period of the musical’s original material, a 1976 short story of the same title by author Yi Cheong-jun (1939-2008), expires this year, according to the show’s PR company Connected Company.
“I am in the process of giving ‘Seopyeonjae’ my very best farewell,” actor Cha Ji-yeon, 40, told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview at a cafe in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, on Monday.
Cha portrays the show’s lead Song-hwa, a passionate pansori performer, devoted daughter and loving sister.
The actor has been with “Seopyeonjae” since the very beginning, when it first premiered on stage in August 2010.
Cha recalled that first performance 12 years ago when she performed in front of a crowd of just some 30 people.
“I still cannot forget that show, and, to this day, I am so grateful to those who came to watch the show during its early days,” she said.
“Seopyeonjae” had a rough beginning. It had a hard time gathering audiences as an original musical based on pansori, which is also referred to as a forgotten art. The first production of the musical brought in less than one billion won ($720,000), while some 2.3 billion won was put into making the musical. In face of such financial issues, the musical’s producer Jo Wang-yeon committed suicide in 2011.
But after nabbing five awards including Best Original Musical, Best Director and Best Actor at the 2011 Musical Awards one month after Jo’s death, the show began to gather more public attention.
Today, “Seopyeonjae” is one of Korea’s most recognizable original musicals. Its song “As We Live” is especially famous, having been covered by prominent celebrities such as actor Lee Sung-kyung and singer Lee So-jung.
Cha described her role as Song-hwa as an unexpected gift. She hadn’t auditioned for the role but was cast anyway because she was one of the few actors in the industry who was familiar with pansori.
“I come from a family with a long line of gugak [Korean traditional music] performers, but to be honest, I had no happy memories about the genre,” said Cha. “It was the type of music that I never wanted to go back to doing, which is why I didn’t audition for ‘Seopyeonjae.’
“But being around pansori and touching those traditional instruments once again during ‘Seopyeonjae’ actually helped me let go of my past and forgive.”
Though “Seopyeonjae” holds a dear place in Cha’s heart, she had already decided to step back, even before realizing that the show itself was coming to an end for good.
“Before I knew that the show would permanently discontinue, I had already made up my mind that this year’s production would be my last,” she said. “I felt that I had nothing more to give to Song-hwa and also didn’t want to get too comfortable in one role.”
Compared to the Song-hwa she played as a 29 year old, Cha said that her character has matured with her over the years. She has played the character throughout her 30s and now, her 40s.
“I don’t cry on stage as much as I did when I was in my 20s,” she said with a slight smile. “Nowadays, I just like to be fully present and totally honest with my emotions as Song-hwa from when the curtains go up until they come down. It is something that I always aspire to do on stage, but it hasn’t been easy. I think I am finally learning now during this last season of ‘Seopyeonjae.’”
Cha said the part of the show that she was going to miss the most was the last, and arguably the most iconic musical number, “Simcheongga.”
“Simcheongga” is one of the few, real pansori tales that has survived through time. It is about a faithful daughter named Simcheong who willingly dies to cure her father’s blindness.
Filled with han [suffering] that has built up inside Song-hwa as she has grown old and weary with age, Cha gives a shattering performance of the six-minute song without any background music. Her raw voice quickly fills the hanji-covered [Korean traditional mulberry paper] walls on the stage and Song-hwa finally embraces her pain. In this moment, there is a sense of clarity as Song-hwa reaches the pinnacle of her pansori career.
Through “Simcheongga,” the musical relays its central message that things that have already happened cannot be undone and one cannot rewind time. Pain and suffering isn’t something that goes away; they are to be embraced to produce transcending power and creativity.
The main role Song-hwa will be alternated by pansori performer Lee Jaram, musical actors Cha Ji-yeon and Yuria, singer Hong Ja, Yang Ji-eun and Hong Ji-yun.
“Seopyeonjae” runs at Kwanglim Arts Center’s BBCH Hall in Gangnam District, southern Seoul through Oct. 23. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday and holidays. There are no shows on Monday. Ticket prices range from 60,000 won ($45) to 130,000 won.
BY LEE JIAN [email@example.com]