By Daniel Levitsky, June 11th 2013.
Every revolutionary regime needs a master narrative. In the mid-1960s, President Kim Il Sung’s son, General Kim Jong Il, was put in charge of party propaganda and agitation, a role that encouraged his growing interest in the arts, and especially in theatre and film. Under his enthusiastic tutelage, not only was Korean cinema revamped, renewed and made to glorify the activities of his father, but an entirely new type of live entertainment, the Korean revolutionary opera, was born. At a special party meeting at the Pyongyang Film Studios, held to inaugurate his son as the mentor of Korean filmmakers and artists, Kim Il Sung told his directors that Korean art (in all its forms) should depict and dramatize two great historical events above all: the anti-Japanese struggle of the 1930s, and the traumatic Korean War of 1950 to 1953. These themes not only lay at the heart of numerous historical films made in the DPRK between the mid-1960s and late 1980s, but also formed the heroic backdrop for the five great revolutionary operas of the early 1970s. All of these bore the stamp of Kim Jong Il in their combination of romantic, engaging plot and emphasis upon the Korean people’s harsh existence during the key formative years of the national liberation.
In the 1960s, as the DPRK’s ideology matured and its infrastructure developed, increased confidence in its own capabilities led to the radical imposition of the ideology of Juche, or ‘self-reliance’. The ambitious, politically astute Kim Jong Il ensured that this meant all art forms, from painting to opera, would be made with the purpose of glorifying his father’s leadership of the country’s glorious struggles. This was a time of Korean historical epics, of intense, overpowering melodramas, many of which proved extremely popular as they allowed people to immerse themselves once again in the ecstatic sense of freedom that followed Japanese oppression, as well as in the horrific suffering of the more recent Korean War, with the cathartic reminder that it was over. Stories of lost children, grieving parents, and inspiring military and political leadership took them back to a time of emotional passion, of trauma and loss. But it also reminded them of ideas such as true comradeship in adversity, and of the chance to take vengeance upon brutal invaders and occupiers, thereby making it possible to rebuild their country anew.
The revolutionary opera was a particularly dynamic medium through which to relate these tales and inculcate Korean audiences with a sense of Juche. Aiming to supersede the ‘anti-revolutionary’, aristocratic style of both European and traditional Korean opera, Kim Jong Il introduced several new Juche-based elements into these mass spectacles. They would contain songs sung in verses or stanzas, in the style of Korean folk ballads. More significantly, they made copious use of the pangchang. These off-stage solos, duets and choruses served several purposes; they narrated key parts of the story, projected a character’s inner voice and thoughts with particular revolutionary intensity, and set the dramatic mood and atmosphere of the tale. These new techniques rendered Korean revolutionary opera particularly accessible to a mass audience, jettisoning the alienating, distancing effect of traditional ‘static’ operatic performance and complementing the aims and role of Korean socialist cinema. Through pangchang, symbolic Korean historical characters could truly reach out from the stage to members of their audience, creating an especially strong link between the emotions of these revolutionary characters and the mood of their spectators. Featuring stirring music and a particularly passionate, grandiose style of performance, Korean revolutionary opera served to not only remind Koreans of the horrific experiences of their fellow countrymen forty years earlier, but to transfer a dramatic, patriotic spirit from the stage to the everyday lives and thoughts of those in the seats of the auditorium. Just as the torch of Juche ‘came to life’ in rarefied form through the power and theatricality of these performances, so it would then continue to blaze in the streets, squares and grand buildings of Pyongyang and further afield as the spectators left the theatre to go about their daily lives. Revolutionary opera would thus be much more than an engaging stage performance; it would be an event, a moment where stirring revolutionary history and its characters met, and inspired, off-stage revolutionary life and its participants.
All five revolutionary operas, Sea of Blood, The Flower Girl, A True Daughter of the Party, Tell O’ The Forest and The Song of Mount Kumgang were made under leader Kim Jong Il’s guidance. Set during either the period of Japanese occupation or that of the Korean War, they all exemplify the intense, melodramatic style of historical revolutionary tale which was being promoted during the early 1970s. Sea of Blood, based on a story written by Kim Il Sung himself, was released as a film in 1969 and later adapted into the first revolutionary opera in 1971. Premiering at the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in the presence of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il, it tells the story of an ordinary Korean mother who is converted to radicalism by the opinions of a political activist, and is then spurred on to revolutionary action by the dramatic deaths of her husband and son, both dedicated socialist activists. Replete with revolutionary romanticism and intense theatricality, Sea of Blood features expressive, emotive staging and an impressive sense of grandiosity. Carefully choreographed sequences, together with copious use of vivid lighting and music, show the mother’s reactions to the revolutionary activities and deaths of her relatives, her subsequent overthrow of local Japanese overlords, and her post-liberation appeals to the local masses. At one point the mother is listening to an old villager’s account of the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim’s guerrillas; when Kim’s name is pronounced, a wide smile appears on the mother’s face and the sun emerges from behind the clouds above her on the stage.
The Flower Girl, also both released as a film and performed as a majestic revolutionary opera, and based on a work written by Kim Il Sung in the 1930s, is possibly one of the most important and widely seen Korean operas. It also set during the period of Japanese oppression. In its portrayal of the extreme suffering of its young heroine, as well as her subsequent liberation at the hands of her revolutionary brother, it serves to emphasise the vital nature of the Korean revolution. Through its uncompromising depiction of the cruel blinding of the heroine’s sister and the violent murder of her mother at the hands of their heartless Japanese landlords, the opera powerfully conveys the message that only with the fundamental social and political change brought by Kim Il-Sung’s revolutionary army can Koreans escape the drudgery and ignominy which they suffered in the years before 1945. The production is made even more immediate and vivid through the use of film projected onto a black backdrop depicting burning flames or roaring waves, natural elements used to convey particularly strong revolutionary pathos. All North Koreans will have seen this important opera, as well as its filmic version.
Not only did the powerful narratives of operas such as Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl enter the consciousness and shape the ideological worldview of their Korean spectators, but their heroes and heroines entered national folklore, further blurring the boundaries between stage and street. The facades of the Grand Theatres in Pyongyang and Hamhung are adorned with bright, dynamic murals depicting the heroines in key scenes from Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. Both characters also appeared frequently on the covers of widely-read cultural magazines, while the heroine of the latter production featured on one of the most frequently used Korean banknotes, firmly establishing her revolutionary character as a part of Korean everyday life.
Both the anti-Japanese struggle and the Korean War offered opportunities to show valiant combat and unflinching patriotism, and to embody the core values of the Korean revolutionary foundation myth in a single powerful narrative. This narrative evoked very real memories of the suffering experienced by the vast majority of Koreans. By the early 1970s, when the five revolutionary operas were conceived and staged, the artistic representation of Kim Il Sung’s heroic leadership and its transformative effects upon the long-suffering population of the DPRK had become the definitive story of the North Korean nation, past and present. The revolutionary operas played a large part in etching this message into the hearts and minds of millions of Koreans, the younger of whom remained as awestruck as their forebears had been by the real revolutionary events of the late 1940s and 1950s.
Images taken from ILLUSIVE UTOPIA: Theater, Film and Everyday Performance in North Korea by Suk-Young Kim (University of Michigan Press, 2010)