Reviewing “The Flower Girl”: DPRK Sea of Blood Opera Troupe on Tour in China (2)
by Adam Cathcart
[Part 1 of the review is available here.]
The landlord arrives again, embodying usury and monopoly capital. He’s Korean, all too fully, loving the flash and panache of the wealthy, functioning as a possible self-critique for generic officials or others who love to abuse their privilege. Kim Il Sung used to couch such critiques in the partisan’s language, warning that it would be all too easy for presumptively revolutionized Koreans to hearken back to colonial modes of behavior, with puppet policemen acting imperious.
When the landlord speaks, giving the verdict to the girl’s family, he is accompanied by a single tremolo in the strings,a tense posing of his power and wealth over her total powerlessness. When it comes to men with money and women without it in in revolutionary opera – be it Chinese or North Korean – there are rarely scenes of mutual victory; instead, the notion is very clearly posed there that because of his greed and his possessions, the girl suffers and her family has nothing. Wealth never trickles down in these artworks.
The next scene extends the notion of class critique, but combines it with a dig at a traditional Korean element. The song is is not a paean to the anti-Japanese struggle in the least, but a comical look at what made so many Korean elites rich in the past: ginseng. With a short intro by the kaegum, the North Koreanized traditional instrument favored by Kim Jong Il and featured also in the March 2012 Unhasu Orchestra concert in Paris, the Korean ethos is extended.
The ode to ginseng and its largesse- and potency-attracting properties is in a jaunty triple meter, a male duet. It’s a lusty routine, and, in the right context, the song could be mistaken as an advertisement for an alcoholic drink. However, the instrumentation son makes it clear that the singing men – the landlord and his assistant — enjoy life a bit too much, and may be in bed with amoral foreigners to do their business. Momentary melodic embroidery by a saxophone slides its way to the fore. This small touch of Westernized decadence goes a long way, and it can’t last long. Unlike Stalin, Kim Il Song never wrote an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music,” but he may as well have: jazz represents the senseless bacchanalia of the West. It is to be dabbled in only briefly, a momentary aural seduction that gives way almost immediately to critique. One has to be a little tight-lipped in enjoyment of such things.
The object of most furious critique is, naturally, a woman, in the person of the landlord’s wife. Arriving and tut-tutting here and there, she is decidedly plump. Yet she seems a touch familiar: is she, perhaps, a bit reminiscent of the new “North Korean middle-class” merchant women working the markets in the DPRK, or wearing the weight with the ease of a provincial leader of the Democratic Women’s League?
Having established the wife’s quasi-evil superiority over the home and the merchant’s full fiduciary control over the town, the authors of the script turn to the key scene: the girl, happy but poor, needs to be physically blinded for life by the greedy landlord.
What could be a more neat encapsulation of the blood-sucking qualities of landlords generally? This is no secret plot, as in Jackals, whereby priests sneak their way around poisoning North Korean children. No, it is an open transgression of morality by the landlord, one that is, dramatically speaking, rooted primarily in the Chinese communist rural performances of the 1930s and 1940s that sought to mobilize local peasants toward finally breaking the deadlock of resentment toward their local land barons, a task not easily achieved. As a duo of American reporters wrote of the matter at the time:
“The Communists, beyond any doubt, are complete masters of brutality when brutality becomes necessary. Stirring the peasant out of his millennial apathy into active, organized movement requires the simplest, most direct appeal to his emotions. It is work for fanatics” (Theodore White and Anna Jacoby, Thunder Out of China, 1949, p. 191).
But the fanatics of revolution have all shot their bolt, and land reform in North Korea was never as severe as its Chinese homologue. Thus, all the greater is the state’s need to remind the populace today of some remenant of the old bitterness, something that justifies the present social system, a source of personal agonies that transcends even foreign imperialism. Yet the manufacturing of this agony brings with it an aura of false memory and overexaggerated pathos, the likes of which is about to erupt on stage:
The girl approaches the landlord’s prize possession, a huge root of ginseng boiling in a vat. Her motivation is plain enough: she is underfed, and hungry. The moment is perfectly magnetic for a North Korean viewer, or a would-be viewer of North Koreans. The girl cannot resist her curiosity and she cannot contain her hunger. Almost precisely like the eponymous boy in Jean-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, this is one of the Flower Girl’s few lone moments on stage, to crouch, approaching the treasure with all the unknowing vagueness of a child. This is the metaphorical illicit viewing of the gold held by the powerful, and the protagonist is, for one fleeting moment, faced with the prospect of theft or its accusation.
The girl is, predictably, caught in the act by the landlord (no food shall be consumed upon the stage), and he and his wife dump the boiling ginseng solution in the girl’s face, blinding her forever. She has been literally and physically scarred by his wealth, the source of his pride and arrogance. The harvest of capital never fails to scar.
The orchestral interlude that follows is Tchaikovskyesque, a musical rendering of the agony which the entire community now feels as it arrives to witness the girl’s pathetic, rapid heavings on the stage floor. As loud, augmented triplets hammer down (the negative transformation of ginseng theme), her fists ball up in a pained rage, while the landlord gratuitously stomps upon her. No help is called, no aid is rendered: the evil landlord has spawned the kernel of revenge which may be nurtured for decades, and his deserving of a violent retribution is here assured.
As in most North Korean opera, the carriers of those feelings of revenge and the witnesses of its original inception are women. They experience the pain together. A virile and immediate response of violence to staunch the landlord is impossible, emphasized by the simultaneous arrest of the girl’s older brother. The women turn to woe and weal. As if to emphasize the male figures are now fully absent (apart from a handful of old men, as if wartime norms never really changed in the DPRK), Kim Jong Il calls for an offstage male chorus to close out Act 1. Singing melody and harmony that would fit well in a Leninist paean or Red Army chorus, the off stage male choir notes the despair of individual resistance, wondering when the time will come to strike back.
Act I ends, six more to follow.
 See Hyun-Ok Park’s 2005 book Two Dreams in One Bed (Duke University Press) for more analysis of the dynamics between landlords (Korean, but more often Chinese) in Manchuria and Korean migrant peasants.
Tags: class identity in North Korea, class struggle in North Korea, Kim Jong Il involvement in music, North Korean opera on tour in China, reviewing the Flower Girl, reviews of North Korean opera, Sea of Blood in China, Sea of Blood Opera Troupe