Damon Albarn: The serious side of monkey business

Author’s note: The completed version was edited down and most of Damon Albarn’s quotes were removed. This 1600-word version, below, features many more quotes from Albarn and also from the Manchester International Festival founder Alex Poots.

WE’RE IN A converted factory in a south-west suburb of Paris, where the rehearsals for Monkey: Journey To The West seem to resemble a medieval carnival. The building is swarming with dozens of acrobats and martial artists, casually spending their downtime unicycling, juggling, sword-fighting, stick-twirling, plate-spinning, walking around on their hands or contorting themselves into ever more surreal shapes.

Wandering amid this Bacchanalian scene is the opera’s composer Damon Albarn, leaping around from laptop computer to piano, occasionally shouting out suggestions as to how the young cast should be singing his music. In a neighbouring room, the impish, bestubbled figure of Jamie Hewlett – the opera’s designer – is watching a particularly beefy Chinese acrobat having his head taped over and his face covered in plaster as he is fitted with a huge, cartoonish latex Pigsy mask.

The calm at the centre of this storm is the opera’s director Chen Shi-Zheng, a long-haired, soft-voiced, moon-faced figure dressed in black, who presides over the 17 acrobats and martial artists as they rehearse the opening scene of the opera. As Damon’s strident oriental funk score blasts out from the PA, the cast come swaggering out from the wings. They are playing a tribe of monkeys, leaping around on all-fours, leaping up huge poles, banging their chests and picking imaginary bugs off their heads as they whoop and grunt ecstatically.

“Don’t be afraid to look foolish!” says Chen Shi-Zheng in Mandarin. “Use every part of your bodies. Now keep screaming!”

Shi-Zheng spent more than two years casting the opera in workshops near Beijing and Shanghai. Most of the cast are in their late teens or early twenties: the men built like welterweight boxers, the women like Olympic gymnasts.

“These people are playing animals and gods and celestial beings,” says Shi-Zheng. “so we needed a broad range of people who could perform different superhuman feats. We needed martial artists who could sing, we needed acrobats who were also trained theatre actors, we needed people who could dance, or play a musical instrument, or fly. And we realised the central role of the Monkey King was so physically demanding that we needed two people to play him – hopefully you won’t notice because they’ll both be wearing exactly the same latex mask!”

The Monkey story has been adapted from a 16th century Chinese classic Journey To The West. Albarn and Hewlett, like most thirtysomething Brits, were familiar with the characters Pigsy, Tripitaka and the Monkey King from the cult late ’70s Japanese TV series Monkey. “Jamie showed me the DVDs and they’re good fun,” laughs Shi-Zheng. “A bit campy, a little bit hippyish.” But his own introduction to the story was rather more dramatic. At the age of eight, Shi-Zheng was given the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature by a librarian friend of his father’s. This was at the height of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when these classics of the Ming and Qing Dynasties were banned.

“He kept them buried in a shoebox in the garden,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Journey To The West was one of them, alongside Romance Of The Three KingdomsDream Of The Red Chamber and The Water Margin. And I read them every year and still read them now. At first I only understood about three-quarters of the words, but the Chinese written language allows you to put your own interpretations on the shapes and the symbols.

“Like most boys, I was cynical, but this tale wasn’t cynical at all. This was about having the power to transform yourself, in a magical and enchanting way. The Monkey King’s journey from animal being to human being to spiritual being was obviously a Buddhist metaphor for the way in which you have to endure calamities to reach enlightenment. But, with my misfortunes, that had a special resonance for me.”

‘Misfortunes’ is a rather mild way of putting it. By the time he’d read Journey To The West, aged eight, Shi-Zheng’s mother (a teacher at a Catholic school) had been shot dead in an anti-government demonstration, while his father (like thousands of other intellectuals) was forcibly taken away during the Cultural Revolution for “retraining” on a farm, only returning after more than a decade of torture and brainwashing as a nervous wreck. Shi-Zheng found solace in music, being taken in by funeral singers and later training with a Chinese opera company.

“This experience of bereavement is actually very useful to an opera director,” he says, calmly and philosophically. “Opera is invariably about how people deal with death, vengeance and tragedy, and most of my work explores that dark side. In fact, Monkey is pretty much the first thing I’ve directed where the bad guys get killed and the good guys win!”

Since leaving China for America in 1987, Shi-Zheng has earned rave reviews around the world as the director of startlingly minimal productions of Chinese operas like The Peony Pavillion and Western operas by the likes of Monterverdi and Wagner. “What I’ve always tried to do is to take the unified physicality of Chinese opera – which tends to tell stories in pictures – and apply that to western work, stuff that’s always been very text heavy.” Yet he has only had one piece performed in China, a 1996 presentation of Euripides’ Bacchae in Beijing. “It’s very important to me to take a Chinese production back home,” he says. “I’m confident that the Chinese public will love Monkey.”

Monkey: Journey To The West is being premiered at Manchester’s Palace Theatre on June 28 as part of the inaugural Manchester International Festival, but its primary producer is the Theatre Chatelet in Paris. It’s a bold move from Paris’s second opera house, a venue that has, in recent decades, worked in feverish rivalry with the Opera National de Paris.

“You might call it healthy competition,” says Chatelet’s creative director Jean Luc Choplin. “I call it costly and wasteful. What is the point in us both doing exactly the same pieces as the Paris Opera? So I want to end the competition and get back to the kind of epic spectacles that the Chatelet was once associated with in the early decades of the 20th century, when we were staging Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, or Debussy’s Le Martyre de St Sébastien, or Diaghilev’s ballet operas. This is what we do best.”

Monkey: Journey To The West is just one of Choplin’s spectaculars for this season, which also includes an operatic adaptation of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (directed by Cronenberg himself and MD’d by Placido Domingo), an African opera, plus a production of Albert Roussel’s opera-ballet Padmavati helmed by Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Monkey: Journey To The West started out when Choplin asked Chen Shi-Zheng to tell a story using the “visual language” of Chinese circus. “Something a bit like Cirque du Soleil,” says Choplin, “but with a proper narrative structure.” The score was initially going to be written by another British pop intellectual, but when that fell through Choplin consulted with his friend Alex Poots – then the creative director at the English National Opera – to suggest someone else. He suggested Albarn, and when Poots left the ENO to curate the Manchester International Festival he arranged to share the funding for the opera, ensuring that it opened as the Festival’s centrepiece event.

Poots has a reputation for adventurous boundary-bothering musical projects, pioneering the Only Connect and Elektronic strands at the Barbican, and curating musical collaborations at Tate Modern. However, in his spell at the ENO, he was also the man who commissioned the turkey that was Gaddafi: A Living Myth at the Coliseum, and he insists that Journey To The West will avoid some of those pitfalls.

“I left the ENO shortly after commissioning the Gaddafi opera,” he says. “And I do feel bad that I wasn’t able to see the project through. But, with Monkey, we’ve got the whole creative team in place and I’m seeing that through until opening night, so it’s a completely different situation. And not only are there huge logistical considerations when you’re co-commissioning the project with the Chatelet – especially when the team are spread between China, France, America and the UK – but there are creative challenges. For instance, Damon works very differently to the average opera composer, so we had to come up with a structure and an environment that gave him the capacity to adapt his work until the last minute. I didn’t want his creative wings to be clipped.”

Damon and Jamie grew close to Shi-Zheng throughout the writing process, touring the southern provinces of China on two “exhausting and exhilarating” visits.

“It was fascinating having Shi-Zheng as a guide,” says Albarn. “Someone who could explain things like the Cultural Revolution from a very human and personal standpoint. Shi-Zheng was keen for me to write my own music, unhampered by dubious notions of authenticity, but I was keen to capture the sounds of China – the traffic, the denouncements, the propaganda, the feeling of tension, all those Maoist tendencies that are still inherent in Chinese culture. But what was astounding is how someone like Shi-Zheng has responded to those political tragedies. When faced with violence and dogma, it’s astounding how people can respond by being immensely philosophical and compassionate.”

Shi-Zheng is remarkably upbeat about the future of China. “You can’t hate an entire nation because of some political incidents,” he says, diplomatically. “You don’t take it personally. When I travel to China now I am amazed at how much things have changed. It’s not the place I left. You have smart young guys running the institutions. The problem now is that China has moved, very suddenly, from being driven by ideology to being driven by commerce. In both those environments, art didn’t stand a chance! I just hope that projects like this can find a place in Chinese society.”

© John LewisThe Times, 25 May 2007

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