Monkey: Journey to The West mixes opera and circus with d&b
"Monkey: Journey to The West", a new opera with music composed by Damon Albarn, the famous front man and vocalist from Blur, and more recently one of the originators, musicians and singing vocals for the virtual band Gorillaz, had its world premier in Manchester in June 07. After receiving stunning reviews during its two week run the production later shifted to the Chatelet Theatre in Paris where it was being similarly lauded. Following its London premiere as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations on February 9th at the British Museum it concludes its final sequence for this particular production in May and June 2008 at the Spoleto Festival in Charlston, USA.
A stage adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng'en, Monkey the opera was conceived and created by the Chinese actor and director Chen Shi-zheng, with the musician Damon Albarn and his Gorillaz collaborator artist Jamie Hewlett providing the score and visual design. Shi-zheng was attracted to the potent combination of cartoon imagery and music that Albarn and Hewlett had produced with Gorillaz. When he met them he was delighted to discover both men shared affection for the tale from their childhood, having watched the Japanese television series, which had been broadcast in the UK in the early 1980s.
The show is a mix of opera and circus and is challenging, to say the least. Performed in Mandarin by a Chinese cast of twelve singers and forty acrobats and martial artists, with at times up to seven people being manually flown whilst singing. The musicianship is equally diverse. There are thirty musicians plus the conductor in the pit, conventional western instruments such as brass, percussion and strings, alongside what sound designer Barry Bartlett describes as "the richest musical palette I've ever had to deal with." Rare instrument specialist Thomas Bloch plays Glass Harmonica and Crystal Baschet, two obscure devices based upon tuned glass bowls attached to differing forms of resonator. Both are played with wet fingers. The Ondes Martenot meanwhile, is an early 1920s keyboard with a musical character that defies description. Albarn's score also incorporates Chinese stringed instruments: Pipa, Jongran and Zheng, sampled keyboards, piano, celeste, saw and hurdy-gurdy.
Just to keep things interesting Albarn, with the encouragement of his musical director David Coulter, commissioned a new instrument. The Klaxophone. This is, as the name suggests, a series of air horns driven off a compressor, played (triggered) by a series of keys. "It can play scales," informed Bartlett, "and has a fierce sound," which he has managed to moderate.
With such a wide dynamic range Bartlett insisted on a d&b audiotechnik system to meet the demands of the presentation. Based upon the Q-Series system he used for the opening production in Manchester; in Paris a three tier left/right systems at different levels cover the majority of Chatelet, with the remaining areas covered by a mixture of Ci80s and house E3 for under balcony delays. The house C7 subwoofers were also incorporated into the design. "Thankfully d&b's Paris office has an Ease plot of the theatre they made when a house d&b system was installed there a couple of years ago," said Bartlett. "This was crucial to obtaining the optimum positions and coverage in a particularly demanding auditorium".
The main system ran on d&b's D12 amplifiers fed with AES inputs directly from the Digidesign Venue FoH desk's stage racks, and the entire system was under the command of d&b's ROPE C remote control software. Bartlett's opening brief from Albarn was "Like opera with a club bass line." A brief well met.