North Korea’s “Sea of Blood” Opera Company has just completed its multi-city China tour, now a regular summer event. This year’s show was the ever-popular revolutionary opera “Flower Girl,” which debuted in Pyongyang in 1972.
The “immortal opera,” as it is known in North Korea, is said to have been initiated by deceased North Korean leader Kim Il Sung back in 1930, after a visit to Wujiazi Village in Northeast China. It was brought to fruition decades later by his son, Kim Jong Il, who gave “detailed guidance” for every scene and song.
“Flower Girl” was subsequently made into a movie that was shown in China during the final years of the Cultural Revolution and became wildly popular. Jindong, who saw it at the time, remembers that all who saw it left the theater crying – he recalls it as more humane than China’s own model operas, allowing for normal human emotion even in the midst of class struggle. (China’s own revolutionary operas did not even feature people who were married or related by blood – the only binding ties were to be loyalty to the Communist Party.) The movie version of “Flower Girl” also made an outsized impact because it was one of the first major widescreen, color films to be shown in China – North Korean film technology of the time was more advanced than China’s.
Unsurprisingly, North Korean opera fell off China’s radar after the Cultural Revolution ended and culture and entertainment from the West flooded the nation. But by the late-1990s, there was once again nostalgia for the “good old days.” China’s own revolutionary model operas were revived and the “Sea of Blood” Opera Company brought “Flower Girl” back. It toured the nation to sold-out houses; Sheila watched it in the Shanghai Grand Theater.
“Sea of Blood” – the company’s striking name is taken from an anti-Japanese war opera – productions are not opera in the Western sense of the term, but song and dance shows that incorporate traditional Korean melodies with revolutionary songs. Librettos are written in verse and the orchestra combines Western and Korean elements; a background “pangchang” chorus sings from the pit to underscore the ideological status of the main characters. The orchestra is so well trained – and familiar with the repertoire – that its members can play without music. In Sheila’s eyes, “Flower Girl” was pure propaganda, but also a real tearjerker. (And the Shanghai performance an experience apparently so moving to the North Korean orchestra that its members stood in the pit and waved to the audience until the last person had left the theater.)
In 2010, the “Sea of Blood” came back to China with a new production – an operatic rendering of the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.” (See Sheila’s review here.) The show proved so popular that the tour was extended from one month to two and a half. Paparazzi followed the 198-member opera company around the nation, spying on them to discover their favorite foods (pork and vermicelli stew and fresh fruit). Reviews of the production were both glowing (the biggest hit since ‘Avatar!’) and filled with angst (why can’t China produce a stage-hit based on its own classic novel?). “Sea of Blood” came back in 2011 with another new version of a Chinese classic, “The Butterfly Lovers.”
The popularity of North Korean opera in China is unsurprising because it dates to the era when the two nations were “as close as lips and teeth.” More interesting, perhaps, is the current, widening vogue for things North Korean. Oil painting from North Korea has become the latest target of voracious Chinese collectors, with several exhibitions selling out A movie being billed as the first China-North Korean co-production premiered last week and is supposed to open on screens nationwide in August.
The movie – “Meet In Pyongyang” – was first approved in 2009 but the script took two years to write. According to The Hollywood Reporter, problems arose largely because North Korean filmmakers wanted to concentrate on the “friendship” between the two nations and found the concept of including any conflict abhorrent. Though the Chinese producer, Li Shuihe, is himself a veteran of propaganda films, he did not want to make a film set in the past with no dramatic conflict – he has to worry about a market. In the end, they created a film that focuses on traditional Korean dance – it includes lengthy clips of the popular drama “Arirang” performed by 100,000 people – with conflict that springs from misunderstanding (and therefore, one supposes, is not truly conflict).
This vogue for things North Korean is likely to expand in coming years. Many Chinese – including those in official positions who have met the new leader, Kim Jong-un – are expecting the nation to open up sooner rather than later. If North Korea decides to start exporting its culture to the outside world, China will be in the best position to help.