The Hermit Kingdom and I

Asia Times
Michael Rank

This 38-year-old British soprano may not be a household name in the western world, but she’s a superstar in North Korea where she has given dozens of concerts and appeared countless times on the rigidly state-controlled television.

Suzanne Clarke has performed every year since 2003 in the culturally and politically isolated country, where she has sung everything from Mozart to Gershwin and from Verdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

North Korea may be highly repressive and deeply suspicious of foreign cultural contamination, but Clarke says the government has never attempted to censor what she sings. “There’s been no interference. I sing what I would like to sing,” she says.

She sings Korean songs as well as Western classics, but is careful to avoid being used as a tool of the Pyongyang regime, so she tactfully turns down requests to sing hymns of praise to the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, around whom an all-embracing personality cult revolves, and which the North Korean government is always eager for foreigners to endorse.

“I come with a message of friendship and peace, not politics. I’m incredibly careful about what I choose to sing. I won’t sing anything in praise of any regime or any particular person,” said Clarke, an active member of Britain’s Labor Party who has nurtured ambitions to become a member of parliament.

She is strongly against capital punishment, which is widely carried out in North Korea, and does not hesitate to tell North Korean officials when she disagrees with their policies. “I tell them that I don’t believe in the death penalty. If I see something that isn’t correct I will point that out.”

Clarke, who has been a principal singer at La Scala, Milan and has been taught by Pavarotti’s singing teacher, Arrigo Pola, loves the Italian repertoire and has sung plenty of Puccini arias in Pyongyang. But she’s wary about including Madame Butterfly in her North Korean repertoire, as this is a sensitive area because of the undertones of American imperialism in the tragic love affair between a Japanese geisha and an American sailor.

Clarke said that despite frequent media attacks on cultural imperialism, North Koreans have “a certain level of knowledge of western music”, and their orchestras play works by Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and even the decidedly modernist Shostakovich. In fact, Shostakovich’s Seventh (or Leningrad) symphony seems to be something of a favorite, judging how often performances of it have been reported by the official North Korean news agency KCNA, although it is unclear whether the government is aware that it is sometimes seen as a veiled attack on Stalin.

Clarke said North Koreans love to be challenged by music that is technically difficult, “so I deliberately try to perform some of the more difficult pieces in the repertoire”. She finds North Korean audiences highly appreciative and they are especially fond of Danny Boy which is surprisingly something of an old favorite in Pyongyang (as it is with older Koreans across the DMZ). “I like trying to win them over, and they do reciprocate,” she says.

Clarke suffered a nasty attack of food poisoning when she visited North Korea for the first time for their annual Friendship Festival in 2003, but this didn’t put her off in the least. She enjoys the country so much that she has twice taken her mother, also a Labor Party activist – “They love my mother because she comes from a poor family and always looks immaculate” – and this year she took her partner Chris to Pyongyang. But next year she may have to skip a visit because she is expecting her first baby in January.

Clarke became a star in Pyongyang via a highly unexpected route. She hails from the northeastern English town of Middlesbrough, which is where North Korea sensationally beat Italy in the quarter finals of the soccer World Cup way back in 1966. In 2001 the remaining members of the North Korean team returned to Middlesbrough as part of a film documentary, The Game of Their Lives, and Clarke sang the North Korean Song of Friendship at the town’s new stadium.

This was the beginning of a remarkable relationship which is continuing not only with concerts but also with fundraising. Clarke has raised money to buy musical instruments for North Korean schools, and now she is hoping to bring a North Korean orchestra over to London next year.

This would be the first ever visit by a North Korean orchestra to the West, and despite the enormous hurdles Clarke is hopeful that she will succeed. “Things are going very well but we need more sponsorship,” said Clarke, who is working with, among others, David Heather, who this summer brought the first North Korean art exhibition to London.

The New York Philharmonic is discussing a possible concert in Pyongyang next February, so North Korea is clearly opening up musically, and Clarke is ready to give the Americans some expert advice should they request it.


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