British singer charms North Koreans into a tour

Times of London
10/24/2007
Lucy Bannerman

She is one of the few Westerners to be invited behind the borders of the world’s most secretive state, and is surely the only soprano from Middlesbrough to perform for Kim Jong Il.

Having become an unlikely celebrity in North Korea over the past six years, the opera singer Suzannah Clarke has pulled off perhaps her greatest coup by getting permission to take the state’s national orchestra to Britain. The Times has learnt that plans are under way for 120 musicians to perform at a number of big venues across the UK early next year.

The Foreign Office has already given its support to the project and the search is now on for sponsors.

For the performers, it will be their first experience of the outside world; for Clarke, 38, it will be the culmination of years of work, using her position as the darling of Pyongyang to build close relations with North Korea’s leaders. She said: “This is not an easy project. Two years ago I wouldn’t have had any hope of succeeding. But when I went out there last April, I could feel a change in the air, a warmer atmosphere. This is the first time the North Koreans have ever let their orchestra abroad.

Clarke, who opened the Euro 96 football championships at Wembley, claims that ending isolation is the best way for the West to build relations with the hardline state, which has a dismal record on human rights and is thought still to be holding up to 200,000 political prisoners, and has presided over millions of deaths from famine and economic mismanagement. However, she argued that isolation was not the answer. The idea of a British tour came to her as she watched the orchestra perform during the annual Friendship Festival this year.

As befits the tough standards set by the dictatorship, the musicians displayed the same discipline and technical prowess demonstrated by the thousands of dancers who take part every year in the synchronised gymnastic games marking Kim Jong Il’s birthday. “They played a cheeky medley of tunes – Shostakovich, Mozart, as well as some of their own repertoire. It was powerful, passionate, but funny as well, and I thought, ‘Gosh, British audiences would love this’,” she said.

She is seeking sponsors and dealing with the considerable logistical challenge of arranging transport and accommodation for 120 North Koreans and their chaperones during their visit. “I wake up from mini-nightmares of losing a North Korean on the Tube,” she said.

Supporters include Lord Alton of Liverpool, chairman of the British-North Korean All Party Parliamentary Group and official patron of the project, and David Heather, a British financier who curated Britain’s first exhibition of North Korean art in Pall Mall, this year.

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