Monkey: Journey to the West

Journey to the West, the opera, written by Damon Albarn, will be shown at the coming Manchester International Festival.

The British singer and song-writer Damon Albarn has written a new opera Monkey: Journey to the West, in Mandarin, to be shown at the inaugurating Manchester International Festival.

The opera is based on a well known 16 century book Journey to the West (西游记), centering around the odyssey of the Monkey. Considered to be one of the four Chinese classical literature masterpieces, it has been adopted into various forms, including Chinese opera, movie and TV, many times, but not Western opera. British audiences have familiarised with the story from the 70s TV series of Japanese import. Damon Albarn and the set and costume designer Jamie Hewlett, were invited by the Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng into the project. Before they started, they had traveled around China for three weeks to understand and learn the music.

The Sunday Times’s Andrew Smith interviewed Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, and Chen Shi-Zheng:

Damon Albarn’s new gold front tooth glints in the midday sun. He seems more relaxed and at ease with himself than in our past encounters – which is impressive, given that we find him in the midst of rehearsing an opera about a monkey, to be performed, in Mandarin, at the start of the Manchester International Festival in eight weeks’ time. Pop people and opera have often made unhappy bedfellows, but if one were setting out to design a set of circumstances from which something horrible could arise, it would be hard to trump this, which makes the heady mix of excitement and trepidation around Monkey: Journey to the West deeply understandable. Asked whether there have been times when he has thought “My God, what have I done?”, Albarn causes his boyish features to open out into a smile.

“Well…” he offers eventually, “I think I’ll probably be feeling that right up until the end of the first show. Then I might be feeling it really badly right after that.” Whatever happens, Manchester looks an interesting place to be come June 28.

On the strength of his recent track record, Albarn is entitled to feel that if anyone can pull off something as ambitious as Monkey: Journey to the West, he can. He also knows that its success or failure won’t rest solely on his score, or on the costumes and set being designed by his partner in Gorillaz, the former comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett. The production had its genesis in Paris, when Jean-Luc Choplin of the Théâtre du Châtelet asked the Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng to come up with something he would like to direct. Chen suggested the Chinese story of the monkey king, a folk tale dating from 1592. He knew that the libretto would be drawn from the original text, but that left the question of who would score and design the piece – until Alex Poots, director of this year’s inaugural Manchester festival, recommended Albarn and Hewlett, having worked with the former on Mali Music, a remarkably satisfying collaboration between the Blur singer and Malian musicians.

Read the full story here.

Monkey: Journey to the West will open the Manchester International Festival on June 28.