'Sea of Blood': A Night at the North Korean Opera

Wednesday 21 January 2015, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Professor Keith Howard (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

In the early 1970s, as the 'new' North Korean ideology of self-reliance bedded in and given that artistic integrity was to remain subservient to ideology, so a new operatic genre emerged. This replaced individual creativity with a collective of composers and artists, and took patriotic stories – often the 'true' exploits of revolutionary heroes – the first being 'P'i pada/Sea of Blood'. Although never acknowledged, inspiration came from China, where five representative operas marked the Cultural Revolution. 'Sea of Blood' operas mark a high point in North Korean artistic production, mixing music with dance and spectacle, popular melodies with folksong, and combining traditional instruments with a Western orchestra. The new genre abandoned Korean p'ansori, the UNESCO-nominated 'Masterpiece' that some have described as 'one-man opera', reportedly because the Northern leader, Kim Il Sung, questioned how such emotional singing could be used in a socialist revolution. 'Sea of Blood' also abandoned operatic arias – 'How can Violetta sing as she dies on stage? It would be so unrealistic' I was once told by a North Korean musicologist. 'Sea of Blood' operas remain celebrated today, and based on fieldwork in Pyongyang, I analyse the juxtaposed artistic components as I ask why the operas continue to be performed some 40 years on.

Professor Keith Howard is Professor of Music at SOAS, University of London. He was formerly Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Sydney, and has held visiting professorships at Monash University, Ewha Women’s University and Hanguk University of Foreign Studies. He has written or edited 17 books, including Music as Intangible Cultural Heritage: Policy, Ideology and Practice in the Preservation of East Asian Traditions (2012), Singing the Kyrgyz Manas (with Saparbek Kasmambetov, 2011), Korean Kayagum Sanjo: A Traditional Instrumental Genre (with Chaesuk Lee and Nicholas Casswell; 2008), Zimbabwean Mbira Music on an International Stage (with Chartwell Dutiro; 2007), Creating Korean Music: Composition and the Discourse of National Identity (2006), Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity (2006), and Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave (2006).  He has been a regular broadcaster on Korean affairs for BBC, ITV, Sky, NBC and others, and is editorial chair for the SOAS Musicology Series (Ashgate).

Location: I/D003

Admission: Free – All welcome