Marrying the East and the West: The Development of North Korea’s Opera Aesthetic at the Height of the Cold War

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By Contributing Writer Alexandra Leonzini

North_Korea_—_Pyongyang_Opera
A True Daughter of the Party (Dangui chamdoen ttal, 1971). The only opera of the Five Great Revolutionary Operas that is set during the Korean War, and details the life and sacrifice of Kang Yong Ok, a nurse and woman soldier in the Korean People’s Army.

Given how outwardly nationalistic the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is, it may surprise the casual “NK watcher” to find detailed references to the lives and works of eighteenth and nineteenth-century European composers in North Korean music history books. Yet the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini feature prominently in many such texts. Histories, such as Uri shik gojeoneumak (Our Style of Classical Music, 2014),  depict Ludwig von Beethoven as an ardent revolutionary who was “saved” from the “foolishness of suicide” by writing his third symphony in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Revolution (71), while others, such as Gageung pyeollam (Opera Handbook, 2011) contain long excerpts from operas such a Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) and Puccini’s Tosca (1899), imploring the reader to “accept the achievements of progressive literature and art in other countries,” and to learn from it (247).[1]

Such an attitude, though in direct opposition to the rhetoric of independence and self-reliance usually espoused by the regime, is very much in keeping with the nation’s roots as a satellite of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The practice of “learning from” and “assimilating” great works of Western European origin was defended by Andrei Zhdanov–Secretary of the CPSU CC appointed by Stalin to direct all Soviet cultural production–when in 1950, for example, he argued for the continued veneration of works from the Western cultural canon by stating “we Bolsheviks…are critically assimilating the cultural heritage of all nations and all times in order to choose from it all that can inspire the working people of Soviet society to great exploits in labor, science and culture” (96).[2] As the dust was settling from the destruction of the Korean War, Kim Il-sung parroted this statement while providing “on the spot guidance” to North Korean writers and artists tasked with building a new national culture, emphasizing the necessity of “absorb[ing] large quantities of the word’s advanced culture” when composing new national works. Highlighting the cultural products of the Soviet Union as ideal models to emulate, Kim stressed to the creative workers of the DPRK that, “only by learning the Soviet Union’s advanced culture and art can we build a brilliant national culture” (300).[3]

Guided by this instruction, they appropriated several western musical forms in their creation of a national music, though none were as warmly embraced as opera. Identified as a tool by which to “educate” and control the citizenry of the DPRK, opera was seen as crucial to the strength of the regime by giving “people a deep understanding of the revolution and [contributing] positively to the formation in them of a revolutionary world outlook” (27).[4] Beyond simply a tool of “education”, however, opera was viewed by Kim Jong-il as a marker of modernism, “a criterion for evaluating the level of a country’s art” (4).[5] It was for this reason that he pushed the development of a distinctly national opera in the late 1960s to stand in opposition to the “flunkeyism and dogmatism” exhibited by the “anti-Party, counter-revolutionary elements” who gave “great prominence to European music” within North Korea at the time (3-4).[6] Rather than rejecting Western influences outright, however, he advocated for the marrying of Western and Korean musics, stating “we must neither take to national nihilism by making a fetish of Western music and Western instruments and ignoring our own national music and instruments, nor must we practice national chauvinism in developing our national music by rejecting Western music and instruments indiscriminately.” “The point,” he emphasized “is with what attitude you consider the mixture of different national cultures” (86).[7] Noting the presence of western music in the DPRK to be “an inevitable result of the worldwide exchange in national culture”, Kim Jong-il advised creative workers to “subordinate Western music and instruments” to the DPRK’s own while making “use of the excellent aspects they have.” As such, the creation of a distinctly North Korean musical voice, according the Kim Jong-il, meant incorporating a few select aspects of Korean traditional music with both Soviet and Western styles and timbres, “discard[ing Korea’s] traditional musical interval system in favor of the triad,” “abandon[ing] its traditional vocal technique and adopt[ing] the clear, mellifluous vocal style of the West,” and “discard[ing] the traditional practice of using sigimsae (ornamentation or embellishments to the main melody).”[8]

This can be seen in the first of North Korea’s Five Great Revolutionary Operas (5dae hyeongmyeonggageuk), Sea of Blood (Pibada) (1971). Set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, Sea of Blood details the tragic life of protagonist Sun-Nyo and her family as they suffer at the hands of the Japanese before joining the communist revolution and fighting for independence.

Offered as proof of North Korea’s emergence from the rubble of the Korean War as a modern, cosmopolitan nation, the development of a national opera, and the appropriation and assimilation of Western musical styles and instruments by the regime was considered a point of national pride for, in the words of Kim Jong-il, “music can sing of life more broadly and deeply and contribute actively to enriching the treasure-house of human culture only when Korean and Western instruments are combined well.” The orchestra “in which the national and Western instruments [were] fused on a full scale…” became a site in which to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the DPRK, and prove to her detractors that it was “a national, popular and modern orchestra with a peculiar timbre and a great, rich sound that no other orchestra of the past could ever produce” (88-90).[9]

While some, such as Keith Howard, have argued that this appropriation of European classical musical forms was due to Kim Jong-il’s enjoyment of European operas over tradition Korean musics. (181 and ff.),[10] North Korean-produced music history books – while staunchly rejecting the “feudalistic” nature of European operas – display a sympathy for European composers who aligned themselves with revolutionary ideals throughout the nineteenth century, suggesting a desire to directly link North Korea’s revolutionary struggles with those of nationalist Europe. As such, a close reading of these texts could aid scholars of North Korea in better understanding the nation’s perception of its place within the pantheon of global nationalist revolutions, and may offer further insight into the nationalist models they most wish to emulate and build upon.

[1] Uri shik gojeoneumak [Our Style of Classical Music] (Pyongyang: Sahoekgwahakchulpansa, 2014); Gageung pyeollam (Pyongyang: Munhagyesuljulpansa, 2011), 247.

[2] Andrei Zhdanov, Essays on Literature, Philosophy and Music (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 96.

[3] ‘Chŏnch’e chakka yesulgadŭlege’, Kim Il-sŏng sŏnjip 3 (Pyongyang, 1953), 300.

[4] Kim Jong-il, Some Problems Arising in the Creation of Masterpieces, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1968/1989), 27.

[5] Kim Jong-il, On the Art of Opera, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1990), 4.

[6] Kim Jong Il, “Let Us Compose More Music Which Will Contribute to Education in the Party’s Monolithic Ideology,” Speech to Officials in the Field of Art and Literature and Composers, June 7, 1967, 3-4.

[7] Kim Jong-il, On the Art of Opera, 86.

[8] Chun In-pyong, “What’s There to Learn from North Korean Music?” Korea Focus, Mar. 12, 2015, http://www.koreafocus.or.kr/design2/layout/content_print.asp?group_id=105808.

[9] Kim Jong-il, On the Art of Opera, 88; 89-90.

[10] See: Keith Howard, ‘Redefining Koreanness: North Korea, Musicology, Ideology, and ‘Improved Korean Instruments,’’ in Frank Rüdiger (ed.) Exploring North Korean Arts (Vienna: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2012), 181 and ff.

 

Alexandra Leonzini is a joint Masters in Global History student at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, and was a visiting student at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in Pyongyang (North Korea) in 2017.

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