Unhasu Orchestra had many singers. Probably several hundred people participated in the various choir combinations. Like in the case of musicians, there were also many visitors, in which the UO policy was very liberal. Many of the visitors were not even professionals, but children, pensioners, athlets, factory workers, etc. UO employed several male singers, but the female singers were always both more numerous and more important. Especially important were the two female star vocalists, So Un-hyang, who performed in every single concert except the Paris concert, where singers did not go; and Hwang Un-mi, who was absent from one Pyongyang concert. In the analysis of individual concerts, I follow pictorially especially the changes in the outlook of these two, as they in a sense symbolize the whole orchestra. The outlook of male members did not much vary, except between civilian and occasional military dress, but the dress and style of female singers was always changing. So Un-hyang tended to sing more happier songs, while Hwang Un-mi was a most passionate interpreter of slightly moodier songs. There was also always a third female star singer. In the beginning she was Ri Hyang-suk, but in midway she was replaced by Jang Yong-ok. There were many other good singers, too.
I have collected in the list below only Korean adult, trained singers, who performed at the front stage. This leaves out several Russian singers, as well as many Korean children and non-professional guests of honour. Pictures of some of these can be seen in the concert analysis.
So Un-hyang is thought to have been born in 1984. She visited the South Korean city of Pusan in September-October 2002 in the Asian Games as a member of the cheering squad at the age of 17-18. There is no information of her musical education, but because of her important position in the UO as one of the star singers, she is likely to have spent some time studying abroad. Before UO So Un-hyang is said to have performed in 왕재산경음악단 Wangjesan light music band. The other orchestra where she sang before UO was Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble; at least in 2007 she has been observed in the Pochonbo “Unhasu” formation. In these photos she is supposed to have been 25-26 years old.
Like So Un-hyang, also Hwang Un-mi was born in 1984. In 2006 at the age of 22 we find her studying at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and participating in the same year in Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutte” at the Opera of Trapani in the role of Dorabella. She is the only known North Korean singer to have participated in a complete opera production in Europe. She graduated in 2008, and apparently returned home, debuting in the UO in September 2009. She thus had 2-3 years of education at a famous foreign institution before her career in North Korea, first in UO until the bitter end in 2013, and later in the State Merited Chorus.
Among central Unhasu Orchestra stars we also have to count Pek Sung-ran. She did not sing, but she narrated with a magnificent, emotionally laden, perfectly trained North Korean propaganda voice. She was thus a vocalist.
The following singer ladies come in a rough order of first appearance. Or the group’s appearance. Pictures are sometimes from later performances; the quality level of the videos is so variable.
Pek Mi-yong 백미영 is an important singer. She is a mezzosoprano, who had a good education in the centre of Pyongyang. As hwabuk tells in yForum, she studied singing either at the Pyongyang Pothonggang Middle School, or the Central District Tongan higher Middle School 중구역동안고급중학교, or both. It is possible that she changed from a more peripheral lower middle school to a more central one along her studies. There exists a video by uriminzokkiri about the latter school in 2013. After that she studied at the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, nowadays KWGUM, like practically everyone else here.
She was a pioneer in the success of North Korean singers in singing competitions abroad. She won a shared second prize at the Maria Caniglia singing competition in Sulmona, Italy, in 2003. She was also mentioned in an Italian newspaper. A year later in August 2004 she was again competing, winning a first prize at the Taurianova singing competition, where also the male bass singer Kim Ki Yong participated and won. It is not known whether Pek stayed the whole year in Italy at that time … but information about small singing contests like the ones in Taurianova and Sulmona must have reached Pyongyang in one way or an other. Pek Mi-yong did not become a regular UO singer; she moved to the State Merited Chorus, where in February 2012 she was awarded the title “People’s Artist” 인민배우 Inmin Beu.
Moranbong, sometimes called also Moranbong Chorus, or Moranbong sextet. Many singing ladies have participated in the group, but in different times. With UO they always performed as a sextet, with ten ladies appearing in total. Though certainly not old, many of them also were not especially young. The group was established at least in 2008, if not earlier. Nothing is known of their background, but they have the aura of Pyongyang upper class ladies, who have singing as a nice occupation. But this is only a guess, without any real foundation. With UO the group performed during 2009-2011.
There exists a short Ri Sol-ju biography by the journal 민족21 in 20120901. It is somewhat different from the rather rudimentary one in Wikipedia. As Minjok21 journalists could visit North Korea occasionally interviewing people, including meeting Ri Sol-ju herself in 2007, had access to early photographs, and in general presents systematic information, I am inclined to follow this biography until it is proven wrong. Excerpts in English here; some probable school dates added by me. Her career would be quite typical also for many other Unhasu Orchestra artists.
1988. Was born in a wealthy and influential Pyongyang family. Exact birthday unknown.
1992 or 1993 (age 4 or 5). Went to Kyongsang Kindergarten 경상유치원 in the Central district in Pyongyang. It is specialized in early musical education, and Ri thus started a career that is perhaps considered ideal for the daughter of an elite family: in the world of culture as a beautiful opera singer. Marriage does not necessarily cut the career, as there are also middle aged and veteran singers, but the front stage tends to be overwhelmingly dominated by young women.
1994 (age 6). Moved to Changjon Primary School 창전소학교 in the same area.
1999 (age 10). Moved to Kumsong Number 1 or 2 Middle School 금성제2고등중학교 (many confusions with the name). One of her classmates at least sometime during this period was Ri Kyong 리경, who presumably came from a similar background and followed a similar career. While there, Ri Sol Ju went during afternoons to 평양학생소년궁전 = 平壌学生少年宮殿 Pyongyang School Children’s Palace, established by Kim Il Song in 1963. It is situated a little north of the Kim Il Song Square; this also in the very centre of Pyongyang. During her middle school years she went also to 만경대학생소년궁전 = 万景台学生少年宮殿 Mangyongde School Children’s Palace, established by Kim Jong Il in 1989. It is the largest of the children palaces, situated in northern Pyongyang, near the birth place of Kim Il Song. She continued her musical education in both afternoon schools.
2002 (age 14). Visited Fukuoka in Japan as a member of the North Korean team participating in a UNESCO children’s art festival.
2003 (age 15). A girl named Ri Sol Ju participated in the North-South border in Kosŏng County in Kangwŏn province in an inter-Korean tree planting ceremony organized by the Red Cross. Her school information is different, but these two Ri Sol Jus are most likely the same person.
2004 (age 16). A girl with the same name participated as a companion in Mount Kumgang in an inter-Korean teacher’s conference.
2005 (age 17). Moved probably in April to Kumsong Institute 금성학원, which is a high school specialized in musical education. It is divided into a musical instrument education programme, and a singing and dancing programme. Ri continued her specialization in singing, like c. 150 other girls. This number also attests to the popularity of high class singing in the education of the daughters of Pyongyang elite families.
2005 September. Participated in inter-Korean cultural events during the 2005 Asian Athletics Championship in Incheon in South Korea, singing with her classmates Ri Kyong and Kim Su-hyang. The visit lasted for 6 days and 5 nights.
There exists a photo in the 민족21 article taken in 2007.05.11 in front of the school. There we see Ri with some of her classmates, all of them presumably in their third grade and about 19 years old at the time. Most of them are familiar from later UO concerts.
2008 March (age 20). Graduated from high school and went with several of her classmates to do foreign studies at a university in Beijing, but it is not clear whether the institution was the Central Conservatory of Music 中央音乐学院 or the China Conservatory of Music 中国音乐学院. The former is more probable, as it is more concentrated on modern music, and the latter on traditional Chinese music. The total length of the visit is not known, but Ri is supposed to have returned to Pyongyang in late 2008 or early 2009. Besides music, she studied also Chinese in Beijing. Sometime around this period between studies and the short professional career she is supposed to have travelled in Germany and perhaps also in other European countries. She may also have started her professional career as a singer in the 인민보안성 예술선전대 人民保安省芸術宣伝隊 Ministry of People’s Security Artistic Propaganda Corps, but this info is unsure.
2010.09.09 (age 22). Debut in Unhasu Orchestra.
2011.02.04. Appearing in her final UO concert as a member of the Moranbong sextet. Whether she participated in recording songs for CD with Moranbong is not known. Her publicly visible career as a professional opera singer lasted only for six months. After that, marriage and then kid(s).
Wangjesan/Wangjaesan yesuldan 왕재산예술단, or Wangjesan art group, was a group of six ladies, which every now and then performed with UO during 2009-2010. They were obviously part of the larger Wangjesan Light Music Band. Some of the group’s member performed also solo, or in combination with other UO singers. Like in the case of Moranbong, some of them were not especially young, having often already professional experience in the larger Wangjesan grouping.
The stream of new female singers ended here in February 2012. One more female guest can be added to the list.
Unhasu Orchestra perhaps had only one male star singer, Kim Ung-sam, who started in the second concert (20091010; in the UO debut concert there were no Korean male singers). Especially during the early UO period he performed often and the most important male numbers. During 2011 his performances became sporadic, and he was last seen on stage with UO in spring 2012.
Like in the case of females, there were also many male guests. New additions to the group of male singers were also regularly made, most of them males who first appeared in the choir of KWG University students, and from there entered the front stage. At the late career of UO practically all male singers were this kind of new GWGU graduates. Males had no groups corresponding with the Moranbong and Wangjesan sextets.
In the 20100415 concert started the movement of young males from the choir to the front stage. In the beginning they could return to the choir for a while, but some came back to the front again, becoming very important singers. They tended to arrive in groups of 3 or 4. This time came four; their pictures are from later concerts.
Kim Ki-yong is/was a famous and important North Korean singer. He studied at the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, and has worked at least in the State Merited Chorus. In 2004, when he was in his 50s, he was sent to Italy, where he won a first prize at the 3rd “Concorso Internazionale Lirico di Canto Taurianova” in August 2004. Taurianova is in Southern Italy, and the competition is not one of the most famous, but anyway, he competed internationally and was successful. He may also be the father of Kim Kyong-hui; this guess is based on the similarity of her name with that of the son, facial similarities, and simultaneous membership in UO.