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.

408
Hamhung Grand Theatre

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.

376
Hamhung Grand Theatre protruding from the skyline as seen from Mt Tonghung Revolutionary Site

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).

411
Hamhung Grand Theatre – One of two ornate marble staircases – c. Koryogroup.com
412
Hamhung Grand Theatre – Leaders’ multi-story mural in foyer – c. Koryogroup.com
419
Hamhung Grand Theatre – Staircase chandelier and sculpture – c. qsl.net

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

420
Postcard promoting The Flower Girl opera  – c. retrodprk.com
421
Postcard promoting the Song of Mount Kumgang opera – c. retrodprk.com

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.’

413
Melodrama in a North Korean Revolutionary Opera c.Kororugroup.com

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.

418
Hamhung central square in front of the Hamhung Grand Theatre

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.

414
Inquisitive children cross the square on their way home from school

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.

415
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the Hamhung Grand Theatre
416
Eternal Life Monument in Hamhung’s central square
417
Eternal Life Monument in Hamhung’s central square

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.

422
Kim Jong-un’s Moranbong Band – c. AP file picture

Credits for videos can be seen within the YouTube pages.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCQ3iJLuw8M

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhXrye7zkwY


My next North Korea – Hamhung review  HERE

Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE


21 thoughts on “The Hamhung Grand Theatre and North Korean Revolutionary Opera

  1. That Dear Leader is pretty amazing; having time writing those operas!!! And a shame I missed buying his book when I was there – am sure it would of been extremely enlightening! Do love your photograph of the children smiling – I didn’t see many until we waved and smiled then they did a little.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting blog with great photos, Albert. I usually don’t like brutalist architecture, but the exterior of Hamhung Grand Theatre did hold a certain appeal for me. The photo you were able to get of one of the grand staircases was actually beautiful I though. I was wondering why your guide did not want you to be able to get a closer look at the Eternal Life Monument — straying too far for comfort I guess. Can’t say I’m a fan of their opera or girl band!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sylvia. Yep, essentially groups are not allowed to wander off and we were on a tight timeframe anyway. The girl band is a bit cheesy but catchy .. I imagine after a few hours I might get a little tired of it .. everything in moderation!

      Like

    1. Perhaps Kim Jong-il liked to keep things simple! I think you can safely assume that if Kim Jong-un wasn’t personally behind the band it would not exist in this form. Of course Kim Jong-un, having been educated in Switzerland, would be very familiar with western trends. The Leaders have never denied themselves things Western – Kim Jong-il supposedly had the largest private collection of western films in the world and was the worlds largest consumer of Hennessy!

      Like

  3. Thank you for the dedication 😆 Seeing the title of this entry I thought you had perhaps managed to attend a performance here and thus see inside, but sadly (although unsurprisingly) not. We were told that performances here were relatively infrequent and you’d have to be lucky to catch one. As you know, we did see a revolutionary opera in Pyongyang – not one of the ‘top five’ but nevertheless fascinating 🙂

    Talking of fascinating, my eye was caught by your photo on the school children in the main square. I am nearly sure that one of the boys (the one in blue towards the right, waving at you) was the one that talked to us when we got off our bus near the Leaders’ statues there. I initially spotted him in your photo because he is wearing the same clothes and I do think it’s possible he is the same boy but as I can’t blow up your photo I’m not 100% sure. Have a look at my larger photo of him on this page and see what you think: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/391/

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And here’s me thinking it was a lovely impromptu encounter 😆

        No, of course I don’t think he’s an actor! Apart from anything else, when he’d said his ‘hello’ and ‘welcome to Korea’, he would have left to search out another group of tourists (if any other such group was visiting Hamhung at the same time as us, which I question). Instead he and his friend followed us all along the road, clearly curious about our presence. So yes, an amazing coincidence I guess!

        Liked by 1 person

          1. It was the blue football strip that alerted me – most of the kids wear the standard black trousers / white shirt combo. And the way he’s turned towards your group to wave suggests he has a particular interest in seeing foreign visitors and is friendly towards them.

            Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s