As the curtain call ended, someone in the back of BAM’s Opera House shouted out, “The Korean War never ended!” It’s a fitting reminder for this opera, which is centrally about the eternal, grueling brutality of war, and especially its effects on the civilian victims–in this case the titular Trojan women, the survivors of the decade-long Trojan war that ultimately saw Troy fall to the Greeks. Their city sacked, their husbands and sons killed or taken as slaves, the women can only wait to hear their fates–with the best outcomes being slavery in a noble household or being given to a Greek nobleman as a concubine with hopes of becoming a wife. In the context of Korean history, one can’t help but think about the “comfort women” of World War II, but all the other instances of rape as a war crime, too, up to the present war in Ukraine.
In a space (designed by Cho Myung-hee) that lightly evokes a classical Greek amphitheater, the chorus of women is omnipresent, from the moment the audience enters till the final moment. Men of the Greek army come and go, entering from the central aisle in a blare of light representing the outside world (a design choice that makes it impossible to read the supertitles in certain key scenes); the named women characters are also taken away by the Greeks one by one, until only the chorus and Queen Hecuba remain at the end.
Based on a Greek tragedy by Euripides, translated into Korean and presented as changgeuk, a Korean musical form dating back to the early twentieth century and born from the intersection of western musical theater with Korean culture, this Trojan Women builds on the earlier Korean musical genre pansori. But it also draws on that most modern of Korean art firms, K-pop, in some of its music choices, marrying a story born from the roots of Western culture–but with deep resonance in Korea, a country long divided by war–with a Korean music style that feels designed in its simplicity and vocal roughness to convey the raw anguish of the characters. (The music is overall composed by Jung Jae-il, with pansori composer Ahn Sook-sun composing the root songs for each character; each is accompanied by a single instrument as they sing.)
Hecuba (Kim Kum-mi, a tornado of grief and rage) is the presiding spirit here, the widow of the King of Troy. She’s lost her husband and many sons to the war, and feels her ties to the world thinning, as she awaits her fate. The other women in her family appear one by one, and then each is sent off to her fate. Her daughter Cassandra (Yi So-yeon), promised to the god Apollo, is a desirable concubine because her status as a handmaiden of a god ensures that she’s a virgin. (Yi’s performance of both Cassandra’s grief-stricken madness and her powers of prophecy is electric; I kept forgetting to watch the supertitles when she was on stage.) Her daughter-in-law Andromache (Kim Mi-jin), mother of the one surviving grandson, is also set to become a concubine, though her infant son will be taken from her first. (Another daughter, Polyxena, is sacrificed on Achilles’s grave offstage.) The other player here is Helen, queen of Sparta (Kim Jun-soo), who ran away with/was kidnapped by (depending on whose version of the story you follow) another of Hecuba’s sons, Paris, thus becoming one of the causes of the war. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is due to be put to death for treason, and she’s scorned by both sides at this point–yet Hecuba fears that her seductive powers are so great that if her husband, Menelaus (Choi Ho-sung, in an oddly comic section of the piece), spends too much time with her, he’ll fall in love with her again and pardon her.
Director Ong Keng Sen gives us many visual reminders of the split between the defeated Troy and the victorious outsiders–the heralds and other Greek envoys arrive, as mentioned above, from the audience in a blaze of light. Where the Trojan women wear white, draped and pleated in different ways, the men and Helen wear gray (costumes are by Kim Moo-hong). And Helen, the greatest outsider of all–the precursor to the Trojan horse; the interloper in their midst–has both a performance style and a musical idiom unlike anyone else in the piece. This “most beautiful woman in the world” is played androgynously, by a male performer; where most of the soloists are accompanied by traditional instruments, Helen is accompanied by a piano playing a melody that seems more like a modern pop ballad than the rest of the music. She feels almost out of time as well as out of place in the world of the piece.
Which feels oddly fitting, since the whole is an art form of the twentieth century, resurrecting a story from the fourth century B.C., which had its twenty-first century world tour disrupted by the global disaster of the pandemic and arrives in a moment where we feel always on the brink of apocalypse. Trojan Women is of course explicitly about the war of man versus man, but the projections (designed by Austin Switzer) saturate the stage with images of nature that also speak of disaster: sheets of flame, rushing water, ominous clouds in the sky. The cycles of nature may be implicitly contrasted with the affairs of humankind here, but all of them seem fairly grim.