On returning from a day-trip to Pujon Country we made a short stop in Hamhung’s central square, over which towers the brutalist Hamhung Grand Theatre, without doubt the city’s grandest and most impressive building, up there with the grand edifices of Pyongyang.
The theatre was built in 1984 and is the largest theatre in the country, making the Pyongyang Grand Theatre look rather petite. From Mt Tonghung it can be clearly seen protruding from the skyline.
We were advised that entry to the theatre was only possible if attending a performance but our guide did provide us with details on interior of the building. She told us about the spectacularly ornate grey marble spiral staircase within each wing of the building and a massive mural of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il surrounded by an adoring crowd which is situated in the enormous entry foyer of the building. I have been able to track down pictures of one of the staircases and the mural (c. Koryogroup.com).
If I heard correctly, the main auditorium (there are others) has a seating capacity of over 2,000.
The standard fare of the theatre is its catalogue of Revolutionary Operas all of which follow a fairly standard formula of patriotism, eulogising the guiding genius of Kim Il-sung and the glorification of the lives of ordinary Koreans, be they steelworkers, farmers or soldiers. The operas always include a good dash of martyrdom and suffering for the national cause with an over-generous helping of melodrama. I have seen it written, ‘propaganda in its most explicit, unsubtle, and unapologetic form’!
Some of the best known operas are:
Sea of Blood
The Flower Girl
The Faithful Daughter of the Party
Speak, O Forest!
Song of Mount Kumgang
The opera programme here is almost exclusively North Korean, with a major portion of it purportedly written by none less than the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who is credited with writing six operas in two years – including all five of those listed above. According to one version of his official biography all Kim Jong-il’s operas are “better than any in the history of music.”
Should you visit the Foreign Language Bookshop in Pyongyang don’t forget to pick up a copy of ‘Kim Jong-il – On The Art Of Opera’. This guide (based on a 1974 speech) sets out the principles of revolutionary opera in North Korea and provides such sagely gems of advice as:
“The opera singer has to sing while acting and act while singing. This is similar to the method of depiction used by stage and film actors who speak while acting and act while speaking .
In particular an opera singer must act realistically while singing.”
Koryo Tours give the following ‘Top Tip’ for non-Korean speakers attending a Revolutionary Opera:
‘Top Tip – don’t worry if you don’t know what is going on at some points. The broad sweep is that the suffering of the Korean people under the Japanese or Americans was immense and unfair, that the ordinary people bore the brunt and sometimes wavered, but with complete and resolute faith in their Leader and the Party the inevitability of their final victory was assured, even if it cost many lives and a lot of blood and tears before it could be realised.’
In addition to opera, in more recent times, local bands such as the Samjiyon Band have started playing here. One a typical night the audience would be treated to such classics as ‘Serial Songs of Guerrillas’, ‘We Love Socialism’, ‘We Think of the Marshal Day and Night’ and ‘Glory to General Kim Jong-un’. Following one particular performance here by the Samjiyon Band, Koryo Media reported that:
‘Seeing the performance, the audience refreshed their determination to be honourable victors in the all-people general offensive toward the Conference of Mallima Frontrunners.’
Not to be outdone by his grandfather’s Pyongyang Traffic Ladies, Kim Jong-un created, and hand picked the members of, his own rather edgy and risqué (for North Korea) all-girl pop band, the Moranbong Band. Reportedly this is Marshal Kim’s answer to South Korea’s K-pop sensation. The Moranbong Band, also known as the Moran Hill Orchestra, is an occassional performer here in Hamhung.
I imagine the more traditional army bands with their wholesome and patriotic renditions, a long time staple in North Korea, would also perform here regularly.
On very rare occasions international companies have performed here. In 2010, a visiting Russian Opera troupe performed Tchaikovsky’s classic work, Eugene Onegin.
The impressively large square in front of the theatre, which functions as a central meeting place for the city and a place for major events such as mass dancing and gymnastic displays, surprisingly does not contain the customary statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, found in similar locations in other cities.
However, in addition to their pictures emblazoned across the front of the theatre, there is an eternal life monument here reminding everyone that the Eternal President and Eternal General Secretary of the Workers Party (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively) remain with the people to guide and protect them for ever.
My attempts to get closer to the eternal life monument to get a better photograph of the base were frustrated by the shrill sound of a whistle blown by one of our guides.
Obviously, the city does have grand statues of the Leaders which we later visited as we left the city, en route to Wonsan.
As you have made it this far you deserve a little treat.
I will leave you with a few numbers (come on gentlemen.. I refer to the videos below, not the picture!) from Kim Jong-un’s Moranbong Band – North Korea’s premier pop band.
Credits for videos can be seen within the YouTube pages.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvC1e4STgAo There are some great comments on this video – I especially like this one– ‘You know it’s North Korea when they bring a MiG-19 on stage’
and finally, one especially dedicated to my friend Sarah who visited Mt Paektu in 2019.
My next North Korea – Hamhung review HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE