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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zhang Huan's Notes on Semele

The Canadian Opera Company's production of Semele, directed by Zhang Huan, will be at the Howard Gilman Opera House from March 4—10. A note from the director follows.

The Canadian Opera Company's Semele. Photo: Gary Beechey
By Zhang Huan

Directing a film, or designing a piece of architecture or the set for a stage production would seem to be a smooth and natural composition for an artist, but to ask an artist to design the set for an opera is a different story altogether, quite extraordinary indeed. The reason is simple: there are very few people who understand opera, and even fewer artists who understand it. In all honesty, I too do not understand opera, but I like doing things out of the ordinary. That is why I have continued to make art to this day. Frankly speaking, I never imagined I would have the chance to be director and set designer for a Western opera, particularly because the original opera was so foreign and distant to me. Even though I have done performance art for many years, it is a completely different category of performance. Looking back on my predestined affinity with theater, at times it may seem absurd but all at once it is still part of my destiny.

My roots in theater date back to the early 1990s in Beijing, those days when I struggled for art and for my very existence. There was one time when I worked on the production of Three Sisters for the great Chinese theatrical director Lin Zhaohua. Yi Liming was set and lighting designer and I was his temporary assistant. At that time, I wasn’t a designer—I didn’t even do set painting. I was a temporary worker with an interest in and curiosity about theater, who needed to make a living. I was responsible for the stage irrigation system. I also worked on the set of Chen Shizheng’s Kunming Opera Peony Pavilion. Even though at that time I was nobody and understood nothing, the magic of the stage was definitely clear to me and it stirred me. Later, after I moved to New York, I received an invitation from Robert Wilson to contribute to one his experimental works. I think it was these dim, sleepy experiences in theater, and many years of practice as a performance and visual artist that just might have given me the guts today to stand on the stage and show people what I know about opera, what I know about the story of Semele.

These years of working in the theater have been a creative experience I will never forget. I have deeply felt how authentic and gorgeous opera is. It is all so real and slowly unfolds right before your eyes. At the same time, it is so unpredictable and so unimaginably peculiar. Even if you are the director, you still can’t completely control it, just as in the opera when Jupiter is unable to save Semele. And just as Jesus could not save the temple dweller, Mr. Fang.

That is theater; that is life.

Zhang Huan.
Mr. Fang lived in this ancestral temple with his family in Quzhou, at the border region between the Zhejiang and Annhui provinces in China. When we were dismantling the structure, we collected the personal items that Mr. Fang and his family had left behind; among these articles was a diary written by the late Mr. Fang before he was executed for murdering his wife’s lover. A majority of this diary is written about his love and hate for his wife, and his sense of responsibility and helplessness towards his family. After reading through this diary, I suddenly came upon an inspiration for the main set of Semele.

I am someone who has never designed a set before. I know that all of the sets and props are fake. This seems to be the natural and obvious way to do things on stage. But I am certain that the feelings elicited by a performer singing on the Great Wall and one singing in front of an artificial background of the Great Wall would be worlds apart. This time around, I am very excited to have the luck and opportunity to be able to take an ancestral family temple with over 450 years of history and use it on the stage of a new opera house. My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings. Love and hate, life and death are the topics that will forever hang over the human race. The fact that the roots of pain introduced thousands of years ago in a Western opera can reappear in the East in the fate of a single peasant family in the countryside, makes us continually ponder the redemptive qualities of humanity.

So this old temple is the chapel where Semele is to get married, the heaven where she creates love, the crematory where she is destroyed, and the holy land that she is reborn in. She is the homeland where human kind has suffered the four great miseries of birth, aging, sickness, and death.

"Yin" and "guo" (cause and effect), desire and animalism are the central problems in Semele. Because man himself is a monster, god is also a monster. Humanity also contains an animalistic aspect, an inner beast. Desire, lust, and the thirst to control and possess are things that we cannot change. The human race has to continuously and eternally develop as it regresses. Moving in circles, we return to a primitive state.

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