On the heels of an invitation to the New York Philharmonic to give the first performance by an American orchestra in North Korea, news emerges that the secretive nation's own state orchestra is to travel abroad for the first time ever. The Times of London reports that the State Symphony Orchestra of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has been given permission to make a tour of the U.K. next year. Making the arrangements was a 38-year-old English soprano (and erstwhile Labour Party politician), Suzannah Clarke, one of the very few Western musicians to have performed in North Korea.
In 2003 Clarke became the first British singer to perform in the country, giving a series of recitals in Pyongyang, the capital. Since then, she has returned about once a year; her performances have been broadcast on North Korean state radio and television, making her something of a celebrity there. She has even sung for the nation's famously reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il.
According to the Times, Clarke got the idea of having the orchestra tour to Britain while watching them perform at the annual Friendship Festival in Pyongyang earlier this year. "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 told the paper.
Her fame in the country and her good relations with officials there helped her get permission for the orchestra to travel, as did the apparent thaw in the atmosphere there that led to the invitation to the New York Philharmonic. "Two years ago I wouldn't have had any hope of succeeding," she told the Times. "But when I went out there last April, I could feel a change in the air, a warmer atmosphere."
In addition to cooperation from the North Korean authorities, Clarke has the support of the British government's Foreign Office. She is now looking for sponsors and arranging transportation and lodging. "I wake up from mini-nightmares of losing a North Korean on the Tube," she said.