Guest Blog // A Visit
to a North Korean
Revolutionary Opera

Dr. Michael Devine from the Centre for Alternative Theatre Training writes about his recent visit to the Revolutionary Opera 'The Victory of the Revolution is in Sight' in North Korea.

Today we have a special guest blog from a recent visitor to North Korea, Dr. Michael Devine, who had the chance to catch one of North Korea's revolutionary operas while visiting Pyongyang over May Day. While operas occur regularly, they are rarely seen by foreign visitors due to a lack of subtitles and the timing of the release of opera schedules. North Korea has five 'Great Revolutionary Operas' dating back to the 1970's with more being created since.

4 May 2018

After lunch the group splits up, four of us headed for the event I’ve been waiting for all week. The Revolutionary Opera! We’re dropped off at the Pyongyang Grand Theatre, already teeming with spectators, and introduced to a young female guide who speaks brilliant English and actually knows something about opera. We’re ushered in like V.I.P.s to a special row. The place is packed with young and old, and buzzing with anticipation. Don’t tell this crowd the art form’s out of date.

The performance itself lives up to my expectations, with some qualifications. It’s luxuriously staged, with a detailed, realistic set which can be changed in seconds due to several hydraulic lifts operating not just up and down but side to side. Four microphones periodically pop up at the front of the stage, so you know what’s coming: choral section! They then slide hypnotically back into the floor. Costumes of the Korean-Japanese conflict, beautifully detailed, intricately timed special effects (especially explosives), a pit orchestra that includes both a men’s and women’s choir (separated at the ends of the pit, of course—one wouldn’t want to suggest any congress between musicians). It’s lavish, in the way Catholics used to make their churches lavish, and for some of the same reasons.

The opera is entitled The Victory of the Revolution is in Sight (혁명의 승리가 보인다). The story involves a young Korean woman serving in the army during the anti-Japanese rebellion (c. 1935). She’s pulled away from her daughter to serve the homeland (teary and sentimental scenes and singing), welcomed by her cheerful and determined comrades in the army unit (rousing patriotic singing), captured by the Japanese (sad singing). She’s tortured, her eyes are gouged out, but she won’t divulge the location of Revolutionary HQ. She drags herself across the snowy plains and returns to her village, where she’s greeted with joy and relief by the villagers (teary and sentimental singing followed by rousing, patriotic singing). She stands atop a hill and shouts ‘I may be blind, but I can see the victory of the Revolution!’ Cheers! It’s a true story if you believe the Koreans, and I’m willing to believe the germ of it is. Western opera narratives rest on similarly shaky foundations (William Tell, anyone?).

I’ve spent much of my career training actors and studying different acting styles, and it must be noted that western operatic acting is generally awful. The acting of this Revolutionary Opera can be awkward for westerners to watch; it’s full of stiff poses, overcooked gesturing and sing-song delivery. Watching the fixed smiles and polished gestures of the children who danced for us at the primary school and the Children’s Palace, it appears that preparation for this style begins early and that the representation of emotion is considered sophisticated, while the authentic production of emotion, would, in this equation, be considered crude. The singing, however, was uniformly excellent. My friend the Canadian opera maven Leslie Barcza would say that singing forms the central point of any opera and I can’t disagree with him, except to qualify that by saying that if the singing is excellent why can’t the acting be as well?

All in all, it’s like stepping back fifty years to an era in the west when the sets are realistic and the singers tended to cluster at the front of the stage. The music—which is quite accessible and melodic—absolutely met its goal of promoting the revolution and socialist thought.

All in all it’s a memorable experience and a lifetime opportunity achieved. I walk out of the theatre amidst happy groups of children and adults with more insights into this remarkable and complex society. And that’s the point of theatre, isn’t it?

See below for a full video of 'The Victory of the Revolution is in Sight'.

Dr. Michael Devine is a Canadian actor, teacher, director, playwright, and founder of the Centre for Alternative Theatre Training (CATT). He is active in theatre productions and training internationally across five continents and more than 20 countries. Find out more about Michael Devine at his personal website and the CATT website.

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