Reviewing “The Flower Girl”: DPRK Sea of Blood Opera Troupe on Tour in China (1)
by Adam Cathcart
Practically any casual observer of North Korean media could tell you that the DPRK is proud of its arts. However, the more salient question — “continuity or rupture in North Korean culture?” — is one where answers are less clear. As the cultural and informational walls between North Korea and its neighbors gradually break down, the North Korean state is being forced to adapt its techniques and sometimes the charismatic propaganda content of its arts.
The question of continuity or change in North Korea is bound strongly to a related question: Wither Kim Jong-il’s cultural influence in North Korea? As the Moranbong Ensemble threatens to eclipse other more established groups in the DPRK like the Unhasu Orchestra, itself the prime personalized vehicle for mourning Kim Jong-il, the question becomes more salient.
As in any large battlefield, the answer to the question depends on the specific front. In the case of the Sea of Blood Opera Troupe, the answer to “change or continuity” leans very strong toward the latter; Kim Jong-il’s cultural influence remains pervasive. If the Moranbong Band would indicate a new direction (or, at minimum, a new twist) of DPRK official culture, the Sea of Blood Troupe is a mark for the cultural conservatives in Pyongyang.
This essay is a first person subjective narrative of an audience member – myself – who attended the Sea of Blood Troupe’s performance on June 26, 2012, in Chengdu, Sichuan province in the PRC.
The troupe’s tour was quite extensive, lasting more than two months, and travelled to a number of cities where North Korea is not known to have many ties heretofore, like Shenzhen. Another SinoNK analyst was able to attend one of the final performances in Beijing and may be chipping in views via the comments section of this essay.
North Koreans in the Chinese Economic Milieu | If the North Koreans want a taste of Chinese prosperity, it’s everywhere in evidence here. There is a monstrous construction boom in Chengdu, and the streets are regularly torn up for subway lines; the city is literally clogged with cash and government investment. I arrived about an hour early at the theater, which is a boxy and bathroom tile-laden construction of 1980s vintage sandwiched in between a McDonalds and some jewelry stores just adjacent to Mao’s statue on the main square of Chengdu.
The odd thing about North Korean cultural exchanges like this is how little culture is formally exchanged; the North Korean singers do not give master classes at the Sichuan Conservatory. The expectation rather is that they will soak up with eager eyes the tangible material benefits of Chinese-style reform.
Opera Tours as Foreign Exchange Vacuum? | The tickets are on discount – two for the price of one. Since prices were already inflated – the seats I want are 680 yuan, about $105 USD – it’s hardly a bargain. As in most cases involving international opera tours there is simply no way that the receipts at the gate can themselves pay for the substantial costs of moving 180 performers and staff around some rather expensive cities. In this case, we can assume that the Chinese government is making up the difference and making the arrangement very worth the North Koreans’ while.
The fact that the Sea of Blood Troupe has been on tour in China twice in the past year, having spent about 3.5 of the last 8 months in the PRC, indicates that the North Koreans believe it’s a useful exercise. Another tour is planned for the fall, featuring a DPRK adaptation of the Chinese revolutionary classic “The White-Haired Girl.”
Scalping and Security | Outside, there is a small gauntlet of Chinese men in their late 40s hustling to sell their tickets (procured somehow, probably through a friend’s work unit). One looks at me, thrusts out two tickets, and says in Sichuan dialect, the equivalent of “Flower Girl – it’s the shizzle: 800 yuan” (卖花姑娘——巴适的很). Even official opera performances, it seems, are subject to the Sino-North Korean grey market.
Security is remarkably lax; in a city teeming with police in the Tibetan quarter, the arrival of 180 North Koreans and a crowd of perhaps 1000+ Chinese does not merit the appearance of a single Public Security officer. Perhaps there are a few in plain clothes, or perhaps no one is worried because Western students in groups like LiNK — or their South Korean counterparts — have never assured themselves of a speedy deportation by protesting Chinese-North Korean interactions on this particular field of battle. And no Chinese in their right mind would go hang an anti-Kim Jong Un banner outside of a North Korean show. After all, the word “Yoduk” means nothing in China and the show will go on unimpeded by any acts of what North Korea now calls “political terrorism.” If nothing else, the feelings of normality are pervasive, if limned with a hint of excitement at the novelty of North Korean performers.
Chinese Audience | The theater opens half an hour before the show, revealing the Chinese audience is a mixed bag. While classical music concerts draw large numbers of young people (elementary school age), this crowd is older: banking on socialist nostalgia, the marketing has worked, but there’s very little of the oft-evoked yet rarely-seen deepening of the friendship down through the generations. When the preponderance of the crowd arrives in a large wave, on the verge of being late, they fill the theater to probably 60-65% of its capacity.
As for CCP leaders, the Sea of Blood Troupe performs twice in Chengdu, but there aren’t too many bigwigs; the new Party Secretary of Sichuan isn’t there and the Xinhua delegation consists of a single reporter for Huaxidu Shibao who will later corner me in a chance backstage encounter and make the resulting impromptu US-North Korea dialogue the centerpiece of his story. There is no CCTV crew.
North Korean Reporters in China | Before the concert, the North Korean reporters are quite busy. One, a slight man in a blue shirt roves through with a camera, identifies me almost immediately as the only evident foreigner at the concert. He wants to film me, but first I want to discuss with him my book of North Korean songs.
I try to explain to him that I’m recording these for cello and piano and would like to meet some of the cellists in the ensemble, and that I’m trying to find a way to get a hold of more North Korean music for cello. He nods excitedly while rummaging through the song book. Looking for something safe and known, he decides he wants me to sing the Song of General Kim Il-sung, the North Korean national anthem. I tell him I don’t know the words.
Things get much easier when the DPRK’s Chinese media liaison (let’s call her Ms. Li) arrives. She’s wonderfully fluent in Mandarin and we begin what is a very nice chat about the tour. I want to explain to her my goal, but the lights are going down; we pledge to meet after the performance. As soon as the lights go dark, the cameraman blinds everyone sitting for ten rows behind me by turning on his very bright camera light on the attentive foreigner locked in attention at the spectacle of North Korean arts.
Prelude to Act I: The Cleanest Race | The opera begins with its most famous aria, a short and pure melody sung by a young girl. One of the things I have learned from playing through the North Korean songbook is that occasionally music from the DPRK needs to be done without vibrato; the child’s voice is thus the ultimate vehicle for the expression of the nation’s purity. If B.R. Myersneeds more evidence that the North Koreans are trained to see themselves as a child-like people, this aria ought to be exhibit A.
If the melody is pure, the words are a touch heavy: they concern the lost nation, and the sorrow of being nationless and exploited. One is reminded obliquely, that, at some later date, when the bitterness has properly matured, the women will brandish pistols – now in the forge of the occupier — or hand them down to their sons. This is the proper expressive theme in North Korean culture of the fatherless state (prior to liberation), addressed in large measure to a female or feminized audience.
For the Chinese, however, this is the melody that they recall from childhood when it was broadcast and re-screen all over the PRC during the Cultural Revolution. At a time when China was almost completely closed to foreign media, this act of artistic solidarity from North Korean partners (when the Soviet cultural production had gone almost completely off into what China then considered avant-garde territory) was not to be forgotten.
Evil Landlord, Take One | The action begins in earnest with the appearance of the landlord. Immediately he gets laughs from the Chinese audience. “Dizhu (地主),” guffaw the two middle-aged women behind me. The Chinese are well familiar with this landlord stereotype from the films and operas of the Cultural Revolution period and prior: He is overweight, mustachioed, with a large nose and a pronounced combover. His purpose is to squeeze profit from his slaves, exude lechery, and connive with foreign powers.
Brassy, loud, and cruel, he throws a fragment of his wealth – a plastic pheasant, which lolls around onstage — at the peasants, disdainfully.
The peasants are all stooped in agony, acting out their suffering in the most exaggerated way, bent under unimaginably oppressive burdens. One old woman is on her knees, slapping the ground and pretending to wail in a fashion precisely mirroring the mourning scene for Kim Jong-il.
Foreign Influence in North Korean Opera | In the transition from the landlord toward an aria, the Flower Girl musical score betrays a heavy influence of the Russian Socialist Realism: a monophonic line of bass and celli, then overlaid by a desolate flute duet. (For a primer on Soviet orchestration, please spend 40 minutes being emotionally destroyed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.)
No sooner has the score borrowed the Soviet idiom than it turns into what can only be called the “North Koreanization of Verdi,” with a strophic baritone-soprano duet with conventional harmonies. The form is a Verdian convention of three verses: 1. Baritone; 2. Soprano; 3. Baritone-Soprano. Kim Il Sung as Girabaldi?
The subject of the text is a classic one – interest rates. The Korean peasant family must take eight years to pay off the debts of their dead patriarch to the landlord. The mother is “sleepless” over the matter, allowing for the first strongly-implied rhetorical pairing of the mother-figure with the North Korean leader, who also does not sleep in vigilance.
The child arrives in a cheery triple meter. Her older brother will finally return. One wonders how Kim Jong Un feels about this particular trope in North Korea opera: the return of the vengeful and injustly detained older brother. Kim Jong Nam, after all, is still hanging around Beijing and Macao.
Adam Cathcart is Lecturer in Asian history at Queen’s University Belfast (UK), and the chief editor of SinoNK.com. He is the author of the article “North Korean Hip-Hop?” and several other peer-reviewed research articles on the subject of North Korean musical arts.
 Just as the audience was laughing, Chen Qiang (陈强), the actor who played the archetypal Chinese landlord in a number of Cultural Revolution film classics in China, was being announced on CCTV as having died in Beijing. However, the broader landlord caricature is hardly a pure CCP invention, and has its roots in the left-wing propaganda operations of the Guomindang’s Northern Expedition of the 1920s.
Tags: CCTV and North Korea, cultural change and continuity in North Korea, cultural cooperation between North Korea and China, DPRK culture, how much is North Korean culture changing, Huaxidu Shibao, KCNA in China, Moranbong Band, musical exchanges, North Korean cellist, North Korean conductor, North Korean reporters, North Korean singer, North Koreans on tour in China, on tour in China, reviews of North Korean opera, Sea of Blood Opera Troupe, Shostakovich in DPRK, Unhasu Orchestra, Verdi in North Korea, Western musical influence in North Korea