Is the Monkey searching for Immortality, or is Opera searching for something new
Innovation in music and art is pretty much constant. While there are those who will follow in the footsteps of an innovator, creating a wave of "new works" in what ever the newest style happens to be, there are other's who are out to find that next horizon. Unfortunately, a good portion of the 20th century was spent exploring, exposing and espousing so many different crazes it's hard to know what worked and what didn't. One key is determining how well the original work was able to be reproduced by other performers. If it couldn't be re-created, then it may have been a work of art, a quality performance, but it isn't a form that will last; it is performer dependant.
The Spoleto Festival in the USA is where "Monkey: Journey to the West" is getting its American debut. The "opera" is a collection of animations, acrobats, aerialists, opera singers, pit orchestra, pop music and much more. The original production was done at the Manchester International Festival last year to rave reviews and will likely get the same in the US. Damon Albarn, the composer and lead singer for British pop band Blur, says "Monkey" is a "new kind of thing." And so it is, sort of…
Cirque du Soleil started a trend of presenting a storyline as part of the acrobatic entertainment of their form of circus. They also augmented the stunning aerials and acrobats with music that wasn't classical, but wasn't really pop either - and then added vocal pyro-techniques to further their art form. The shows are amazing, but they're not really opera. While the vocalists are amazing, it is the backdrop to the visuals on stage. The story is part of the show, but a tenuous one. Cirque du Soleil is acrobats and aerials that are then tied together (loosely) with a story line and music. Their shows are wonder entertainment, but neither classify as opera.
As wonderfully entertaining as they are, there is a problem duplicating them. Cirque du Soleil has numerous shows, some travel, some are on permanent location in Las Vegas. But so far, no one has successfully taken their stories and re-mounted them. "Monkey" is likely to suffer the same fate. As amazing a show as it is, well worth going to see, it is such a diverse collection of artists it will be difficult at best for anyone else to create their own production.
Someone might do away with the animation at the beginning; that could be done with programme notes. Maybe the acrobatics could be replaced with more "traditional" choreography, but to do so would take away so much from the performance, the piece would seem flat. The storyline isn't so interesting to retain our interest; that isn't the focus of this production. Again, it is a wonderful show. I am only suggesting that it isn't the new direction for opera.
Opera, IMHO, depends on the work going beyond the individual performer and into something more timeless. It should be able to be taken by other artists and re-created. This doesn't mean the original production needs to be duplicated; numerous productions of Turandot have been mounted with everything from traditional Chinese settings to downtown China town in New York - and probably a lot more even more diverse. Turandot isn't an opera I particular care for the story, but as an opera, it works.
It Must Be Fate is our attempt at something new. I won't get into all the concepts of what's new about it (as some of the concepts are still forming and I'd really like to get them into production before letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak), but it is an attempt to take opera in a new direction. However, there is also a focus in the writing of the work to make it independent of specific performers. The biggest question will be how well operatic performers can do with some of the modern pyro-techniques of urban, funk, rock and soul. It's not easy music, but it is definitely new.