Reviewing “The Flower Girl”: DPRK Sea of Blood Opera Troupe on Tour in China (3)

By | September 23, 2012 | No Comments

North Korean Choristers in Chengdu, June 28, 2012 | Image courtesy Huaxidu Shibao

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Reviewing “The Flower Girl”: DPRK Sea of Blood Opera Troupe on Tour in China (3)

by Adam Cathcart

Parts One and Two of this review were previously published on 

Act II begins with a change of seasons – snow.  After some sensitive bassoon countermelodies, the first appearance arrives of the female chorus. The female chorus, like its Soviet predecessor group, is an elemental block in North Korean music.  The fourteen women who comprise the chorus are in the orchestral pit, but about seven of their heads – the top row – elevates out over the edge, and thus are visible to the audience.  The women sing not simply in harmonic unison, but in physical unison, moving and breathing together. These movements distinguish the performance as a North Korean one and the DPRK’s musical arts as both pliant in gestalt and rigid in adherence to the ideology of physical pliancy.

This is a lesson Chinese performing artists have learned the hard way when trying to temper this tendency with their North Korean colleagues: It’s a Juche thing.  There is no performance that is not exaggerated or into which notions of physical unity of motion do not play.  It’s the same reason North Korean women laugh when they see South Korean boy bands try to dance live in unison — it’s sloppy; clearly the corporatist ideology has not penetrated South sufficiently.

More than notions of juche performance ideology, the visibility of the  women’s chorus in the pit combined with the young girl on stage is  also a highly purposeful element.  The visual and aural merger of women’s chorus (representing the present DPRK) with the girl on stage (representing the colonial past) is effective: the chorus women are what the blind girl should be: physically healthy, grown, and, above all, members of a nation.

Homecoming and Revenge |  Once the girl is left alone, the chorus sits and the present relents back to the colonial past.  Again and again, from its colonial vantage point, this work reflects back, presupposing that if the root cause of all the misery could just be found and uprooted, all the vengeance in the world could be exculpated and exacted.  Perhaps it is something more than a typical socialist inculcating device about class exploitation; perhaps it plays up the Kimist hunt for enemies, ceaseless, shifted back in time; the historical enemies and collaborators deserve to be rooted out, having caused such pain.

The object which triggers this melodic crush is a tree, which has grown for six generations.  Nature as a point of meditation, and it contains within it the genetic codes of anger.

As with so much North Korean art, a discussion unfolds among powerless women, wondering when the male figure (in this case the “older brother,” who ought to be about 19, but in this production is played by an pancaked actor who appears to be about 45 years old) will be returning. Though living in the same village, the heavy demands of work have made regular gatherings impossible.  (The rather obvious contrast to this awful truth is ostensibly the happy truth of the DPRK, where no one besides the leader is overworked and the people need not work for free.)  The village is full of women, children, and old men. The Flower Girl thus trafficks in ideas and scenarios which have unintentionally become rather familiar to North Korean families whose families have been split: the awaiting of the homecoming, and the crushing demands of manual uncompensated labor.

Harmonic Revolutionary Potency | The unrelenting heaviness and heavy-handedness of the subject matter, however, is offset by some very effective orchestration.  There proceeds a very affecting cello/viola/kagyum bit of monophony that splits into harmony, a sonority that is also associated with the instrumentation of the string sound of the Unhasu Orchestra.  North Korean libretti and plot summaries, when merely read, seem impossibly like shtick, but it is the music that carries the whole thing of and makes it move.  Much of the revolutionary potency of the DPRK is harmonic, after all.

The mother then begins an aria in a triple meter, a — completely predictable — meditation on the difficulty of her situation.  In the single biggest technical flaw of the show, the mother plants herself on a rickety chair outside of her shack, and is thereby stuck in a corner of stage left.  She is invisible to at least two-thirds of the Chengdu paying audience.  Without being able to see her plangeant face during this lament, we, the audience, can only focus our slowly rising anger at the tilled land which forms a painted background to an empty stage.  Is this enforced attention to an empty field some subliminal message? “Kim Jong Un! Reform this land tenancy system!”

The women’s chorus returns – unlike the mother, some of them are visible, and they sway with the exaggerated pucker of the mouth and the elevation in the sinus cavity that, with good singers – and they are – makes the cheekbones themselves part of the resonant carrying capacity.  They comfort the mother from the present, understanding her grief. Again they, the women’s chorus, are the time nexus that allows us to reach out to almost physically touch the pain of the colonial era while simultaneously allowing us to remain in our own prosperous time.

Then, something absolutely stunning happens.  The conductor, Maestro Park, takes pure command of the orchestral machine, which for most of the past half hour has been mainly thumping its way through easy 3s in a constant tempo.  Here, in a Largo, he takes command of the tempo with a rubato that is so flexible as to be almost – but not quite – teetering on the edge of falling apart.  But the group remains completely in hands, and the tempo flexes to his every wish, portraying pathos, the thoughts of a girl who is both suffering and hopeful.  My head tingles, I can’t help it – this is why North Koreans cry. Recall the masssive power marshaled by Maestro Li Delun doing the Internationale at the end East is Red and you will understand it; this is among the highest experiences any human being can ever have, to have their will enacted in sound.  Even Kim Jong Un can’t do that.

The landlord duet arrives to kill the mood and the sublime becomes ridiculous.  And maybe it’s just as well; as John Updike writes in Memories of the Ford Administration, even orgasm can’t last forever.  The new mood is humor – again, the already-rich men are tallying up all the expenses that the peasants owe them.  It’s about as explicit a statement of class values that we are to receive in this opera, but one’s emotional mind, still rocked from the previous artistry, is somehow within the logic of the opera still, primed for another lament, secretly longing for another such lament.    

Adam Cathcart is Lecturer in Asian History at Queens University Belfast.  He will be presenting research about North Korean musical culture at Stanford University on November 2.  

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  1. I’m afraid to watch the opera now. No way it could live up to what’s written here. And if it did, there would be the inevitable dilemma – how could such an odious regime produce such cathartic miracles. Or perhaps that’s the catch: in order to portray light, one must first plumb the depths of dark in order to understand everything dark is not.

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