Monkey | The Spinner – 2008

Gorillaz’ Albarn and Hewlett Tackle Chinese Opera With ‘Monkey’ 

Throughout its history, rock and roll has embraced elements of opera, most notably theWho’s ‘Tommy’ and Queen’s classic hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ But Western artists tackling Chinese opera is quite something else. That was the challenge faced by rocker Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett ofGorillaz when they collaborated with Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng on the production of ‘Monkey: Journey to the West.’ It’s an opera based on a 16th-century Chinese book about the Monkey King, with Albarn composing the music and Hewlett designing the costumes.

“I was worried,” Albarn tells Spinner about his initial involvement in Monkey. “‘How can I do this?’ I mean, one: I didn’t have any idea about how to write an opera; and two: it obviously had to have very strong Chinese influence.”

The opera premiered in 2007 at the Manchester International Festival, and was later performed at the Spoleteo Festival in South Carolina and at the Royal Opera House in London this year. (Monkey will mount again at London’s O2 this November). The production involved an overall total of about 500 people. With singing and dancing, Monkey features a cast of acrobats and martial artists.

The journey to ‘Monkey’ began a few years ago when Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet and the Manchester International Festival approached Albarn and Hewlett with Chen Shi-Zheng’s idea. “Our first reaction was ‘Monkey!’ Ah, I remember that. That was a great TV series,'” says Albarn, “when we were kids in Britain in the late ’70s/early ’80s. We didn’t even really know that it was a piece of classic literature from the 16th century.”

The members of Gorillaz went to China on an “expedition of discovery,” as Hewlett describes it. “I listened to a lot of Chinese music when I was in China,” Albarn says. “The first trip, we went to the Southern provinces and were very privileged to visit a lot of mountain villages where the Dong and the Mao people live. But it wasn’t just that — it was the kind of juxtaposition of that really ancient, ritualistic music and the sound of modern China that just … everything from the sound of escalators, to traffic, to conversation.”

The music based on the production, recorded in early 2008 with Chinese and European musicians, was just released in the States last week. While Monkey’s music definitely draws on traditional Chinese music, it also incorporates some contemporary rock and electronic textures. “It was a trial and error thing,” says Albarn. “The second time, when we were in Beijing, I had hung out with a lot of musicians and I got everyone to play every note on every instrument, and so I basically took back to London my virtual orchestra. And the parameters which all instruments can play comfortably was, sort of, put on the keyboards.”

A challenge during the preproduction was trying to make everything come together in three weeks, according to Hewlett. “Everyone was sweating,” he says. “All the different parts came together … the cast arrived from China and we had never met them; the costumes arrived from where they were being made; and all these separate parts had been building in different parts of the world. So everyone was sort of running around panicking.”

There is a message that Albarn wanted to convey through ‘Monkey.’ “Aside from it being an absolutely fantastic story,” he says, “we as a culture really need to engage with China, and maybe modify some of our attitudes. So in that sense, it’s a good thing that something like this exists in context of here.”

After the experience of composing the music and designing the look for the production, which has already generated positive reviews in the media, the Gorillaz members would like to work on another opera in the future. “I’d definitely like to write a real opera,” says Albarn, “because that isn’t really an opera. It’s not a musical, either. It has very clear reference points to opera within it. But yeah, I would really like to do that at some point.”

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