Greek tragedy reborn with pansori

Trojan Women

National Changgeuk Company of Korea, Ong Keng Sen

The women of Troy are victims of war. After their men and sons were massacred by the victors, the women were shipped to Greece as slaves. Over two thousand years ago, Euripides wrote Trojan Women, a fierce denunciation of the horrors of war. The National Theatre of Korea from Seoul and the Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen adapted this Greek tragedy into a contemporary Korean opera, featuring both pansori (traditional Korean musical storytelling), composed by Ahn Sook-sun, one of the greatest pansori masters of our time, and contemporary music, composed by Jung Jae-il, K-pop (Korean pop music) producer and composer. The pansori singers’ voices and expressive acting are phenomenal, expressing more poignantly than ever the bleak fate of the Trojan women. 

background information

A tragic fate awaits the women of Troy after their city is conquered by the Greeks. The victors plan to take the women back to Greece as slaves. Queens and princesses are subjected to profound 

humiliation, stripped of their power and glory. These are the themes of the classical Greek tragedy, Trojan Women, written by Euripides, which takes place in the hours between the sacking of Troy and the Greek’s embarkation with their spoils. Four women prepare themselves for a subservient existence, in which they will do everything they can to survive. 

Director from Singapore Ong Keng Sen has adapted this tale to create a changgeuk (traditional Korean opera) suffused with the stylised character and stature of Korean music theatre. The subject has a unique resonance in Korea because of the history of the 'comfort women' who were forced into prostitution by the occupying Japanese during the Second World War. For this staging, Ong has drawn on the changgeuk, a genre of Korean theatre that evolved from the pansori, a secular epic tradition rich in contrasts. Pansori, the genre, can be likened, in its use of sign language and facial expressions, to silent films. Every movement and posture has a specific connotation. The performances of pansori, which in their unabridged form can last for hours, are always presented by a woman, who sings, acts and recites the texts, a fan her only prop. The recitations often erupt into violent outbursts. A drum is the only accompaniment: it accentuates the tale, underlining the rhythm of the words. Changgeuk, which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, is a style less strict than pansori. Its vocal style may be similar, but several different singers portray the characters. An ensemble made up of percussion, string instruments and winds provides the accompaniment.

Trojan Women employs a combination of the changgeuk and pansori styles. With this work, Ong Keng Sen wanted to strip changgeuk back to its original essence. 'Over the years’, he said, ‘elements from musicals and western opera have been added. I've peeled away those layers once again to arrive at the melodies of the pansori, which form the musical basis of the changgeuk.' The vocal parts of the four main Trojan Women characters have been composed orally by Ahn Sook-sun, the most celebrated pansori singer of our era. She nuanced the parts so that the bent notes, ornamentation and accents could be readily reproduced. Ong Keng Sen, influenced by pansori, requested that each character is accompanied by his or her own unique instrument. In the story, Helen is an outsider, not only because she comes from Greece, but because she was the direct cause of the war. Ong Keng Sen emphasises this by having the role played by a man, accompanied by a piano.

The music of the chorus, which usually provides commentary on events in Greek tragedies, was written by Jung Jae-Il, a K-pop and film composer. 'I wanted to bring K-pop into Trojan Women, as well', says Ong Keng Sen,  ‘when it comes to theatre and music, the performance includes a continuum of elements spanning centuries, from the Trojan War to the present day.'

Trojan Women takes place in the kingdom of Troy after its defeat at the hands of the combined armies of Greece and Sparta. The play revolves around the fate of the Trojan women in the hours before they are transported as slaves to Greece. Among them is Hecuba, the former queen. Hecuba lost her husband and all her sons during the ten years of the Trojan War. She receives the devastating news that her daughter Cassandra will be given to Agamemnon, the most important Greek king, to become his slave and concubine. Hecuba’s daughter-in-law Andromache will become the property of a Greek general.

The tragedy begins when Helen, the Queen of Sparta, falls in love with Paris, a Trojan prince. She accompanies him to Troy. Her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, starts a war to get revenge on his runaway wife and her lover. The combined forces of Greece and Sparta invade Trojan territory. The Trojan citizens fall prey to a Greek trick: the Greeks place a wooden horse containing hidden soldiers outside the city walls and then withdraw as if retreat had been sounded. The Trojans see the horse as a gift from the gods, a confirmation of their victory. They bring it inside the city walls, and a lavish celebration ensues. In the middle of the night, Greek soldiers climb out of the horse. They let their fellow warriors into the city and together, they slaughter the Trojans. Troy is defeated, and King Menelaus appears before the Trojan women, who are destined to be deported as slaves.



Ong Keng Sen (Singapore, 1963) is regarded as one of the most original theatre directors to emerge from Asia. After completing a law degree in Singapore, he moved to New York in 1992 to

study intercultural theatre at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. In 1994 he began The Flying Circus Project, a centre for bringing together traditional and contemporary arts from various disciplines: theatre, music, dance, video, the visual arts, documentary film and ritual. He subsequently established Arts Network Asia, where artists and activists from throughout the region can collaborate. Ong Keng Sen is the director of TheatreWorks, an international group based in Singapore devoted to the exploration of Asian identity and its relationship with 21st-century developments. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the director of the independent Singapore International Festival of the Arts. For some years, Ong was also a member of the jury of the Dutch Prince Claus Award. 

Ong views theatre as transcending the borders between cultures and disciplines. Moreover, with his productions, he aims to bridge the gap between the past and the present, in part by interweaving Asian and Western traditions. Ong disdains the concept of an authentic, purely Asian culture. In his work, he prefers to give expression to the multiplicity of perspectives and cross-pollination which characterise Asia. Additionally, gender-bending is a familiar element in his productions, as seen in his treatment of Shakespeare's Richard III, in which the lead went to a Japanese kabuki actor known for playing female roles.

Ahn Sook-sun (Namwon, 1949) was designated a "living cultural treasure" for her extraordinary gifts as a musician in 1997 in Korea. She is considered to be one of the most highly-respected performers of pansori, a genre added to Unesco's global list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Of the twelve original pansori works within the genre, only five have survived intact. In their unabridged versions, each performance can last several hours. Ahn Sook Sun learned all five complete works directly from the masters with whom she studied. She is also an accomplished player of the kayagum, a zither-like twelve-stringed instrument. She fulfils a prominent role in the National Gugak Centre, the Korean institution for traditional music. She performs around the globe, both with that ensemble and as a pansori singer.

Jung Jae-il (Seoul, 1982) is active as a musician and composer in many genres, from film music to lounge jazz, from K-pop to improvisation. He has released a wide range of CDs. In 2016, Jung Jae-il appeared as a guitarist and pianist at the Montreux Jazz Festival, performing with the Korean singer Han Seung-seok. He also wrote the music for the film Okja (2017). In his own country, he is famous for his understanding of both Western classical music and Korean traditional music.


The National Theatre of Korea is Korea's national performing arts centre established in Seoul in 1950. The theatre has numerous resident artistic groups, including the National Dance Company, the National Orchestra, as well as the National Changgeuk Company of Korea – which has many popular repertoires including Trojan Women. Since its founding in 1962, the National Changgeuk Company of Korea has presented changgeuk, traditional Korean opera. “Chang” means pansori, and “geuk” means drama in Korean. Pansori is a Korean oral tradition of musical storytelling performed by a singer and a drummer. Changgeuk rooted in pansori hires numerous singers and divides parts of pansori to take different roles. Within Korea, the National Theatre of Korea is a respected authority in all fields of the performing arts. It strives to provide a contemporary framework for traditional Korean art forms.




concept, direction
Ong Keng Sen
Bae Sam-sik
pansori music
Ahn Sook-sun
music, music direction
Jung Jae-il
Wen Hui
Myung Hee Cho
Scott Zielinski
Austin Switser
costume, make-up
Kim Moo-hong
Jee Young
associate director
Grace Low
Kim Kum-mi (Hecuba, queen of Troy), Yi so-yeon (Cassandra, her daughter), Kim Ji-sook (Andromache, woman of Hector, eldest son of Hecuba), Kim Jun-soo (Helen, queen of Sparta), Lee Kwang-bok (Talthybios, Greek soldier), Choi Ho-sung (Menelaus, king of Sparta)
Jung Mi-jung, Heo Ae-sun, Na Yoon-young, Seo Jung-kum, Kim Mi-Jin, Lee Youn-joo, Min Eun-kyung, Cho Yu-ah
wandering spirit (double-cast)
Ahn Sook-sun, Yu Tae-pyung-yang
Choi Young-hoon, Park Hee-jung, Lee Sung-do, Cho Yong-su, Lee Won-wang, Lee Ye-ji, Jun Gye-yeol, Won Na-kyoung, Lee Jeong-ah
presented by
National Theater of Korea, National Changgeuk Company of Korea
National Theater of Korea, Singapore International Festival of Arts

This performance was made possible with support by