Catch the first broadcast of Canadian-made children's opera 'The Monkiest King'

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"The Monkiest King" performed by the Canadian Children's Opera Company. Image: Ken Hall

A couple of years ago, the classic Chinese figure of the Monkey King was injected with fresh, new life in a children's opera by award-winning composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan (commissioned and produced by the Canadian Children's Opera Company (CCOC). Fortunately, for those who missed it, it's having a second life this year. 

The Monkiest King will be broadcast for the first time on August 29 on the CBC radio show Saturday Afternoon at the Opera with Ben Heppner (second half). The original production had a cast of more than 150 children, members of the CCOC. The broadcast comes on the heels of the opera's album launch in June this year.

In 2018, Ho -- who previously collaborated with Chan on the 2013 Dora award-winning opera The Lesson of Da Ji -- called it a "dream project" in a statement released by the CCOC, adding that it was an "exploration of a new story from an old Chinese tale … the most famous modern-day Chinese 'Marvel hero' of Sun Wukong."

While the Monkey King has appeared in various stories and adaptations over time, the pair decided to utilize the 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en as their inspiration. It was an instant hit, nominated for two 2019 Dora awards; one for outstanding new opera and one for outstanding performance of an ensemble. (The Dora Mavor Moore Awards -- the Doras -- are presented annually by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts which honours theatre, dance and opera productions in the city).

I spoke with Chan, who was born in Toronto and is based there, about the opera and the recording.

Chan, who is the current artistic director of the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, has deep experience in creating rich and culturally diverse multi-disciplinary works as a playwright, librettist, director and dramaturge.

Her first play, China Doll (2004), delved into the beginnings of feminism in China and was nominated at the Doras for outstanding new play and outstanding production as well as the Governor General's literary award. Since then, she has earned multiple accolades, worked with many respected theatre companies, and won the K.M. Hunter Theatre Artist award in 2005. She was also previously artist-in-residence at Banff Playwrights' Lab, Cahoots Theatre, Factory Theatre, Theatre Direct Canada and Theatre du Pif (Hong Kong).

June Chua: What was the biggest challenge in adapting this to a children's opera?

Marjorie Chan: Alice's initial idea was to adapt the entire novel, but we were given a time restriction, 70 minutes tops for opera. I didn't think we'd be able to adapt to that length from 100 chapters of the original book! We decided to focus on the first seven chapters, which is about the rise of the Monkey King -- just before journeying to the west.

Also, we had to consider our approach. In western cultures, we are so familiar with the same tales that have been passed around but the stories from other cultures aren't so prominent. We wanted it to be accessible. So, I decided to make it a story where a child goes to a museum. He's kind of rambunctious and he gets lost and falls asleep in the Chinese gallery as the museum closes. He becomes the persona of the Monkey King and goes on an adventure and when he wakes up, he has a stuffed monkey in his arms. So, the audience gets to wonder: Was it a dream? 

JC: What's the difference between a children's opera and an adult one?

MC: My adult works are fairly dramatic; they have high stakes. That holds true for children's opera as well. But one huge difference in this opera was I had more than 150 children, split into two casts. Some of the kids were in both casts, the younger ones were not. A few of them overlapped and shared roles. So, there is an egalitarian approach to writing it. Everyone gets featured, everyone gets a line, everyone gets into be in the chorus. There were tons of solo parts for the kids to perform. I also had to create for different choruses divided up into age groups i.e. three-to-five-year-olds, six-to-12-year-olds and then teenagers. I was asked to provide names for each part in the chorus so each child felt they could take ownership of that character. In addition, we had to make music and lyrics that were simpler for the younger ones.

JC: Some sections were in Mandarin or Cantonese -- were there difficulties in grasping the languages?

MC: The young people at the CCOC have a lot of practice singing in German, French, Italian or Czech. There were a few sections here and there in Mandarin or a Cantonese dialect. For instance, when the Monkiest King climbs a waterfall and ends up in heaven and there's a cloud chorus. It's an ethereal place and they sing in Mandarin. I feel the performers picked it up really well; their tones were really good. Mandarin and Cantonese are mostly tonal and if you sing opera, you sing tonally. The Monkiest King is mainly in English, though.

JC: Tell me more about the recording.

MC: The album just launched in June this year, and you can watch a "making of" short video about it, by the way. Opera recordings take a lot of energy and money. It's rare for a contemporary opera to be recorded actually. They often do it live or while in performance. I credit Alice Ho. She worked hard on our previous opera, The Lesson of Da Ji, to produce an album for that. The funding is a combination of government money and support from the Canadian Music Centre. We had about 60 children sing in it, some were learning new parts they hadn't sung before as we doubled up on certain roles. The leads came back and it was a tight production, four days in all, back in 2019.

JC: How will an audience experience an opera they've never seen, but get to hear on radio or as a recording?

MC: As a librettist, I'm pretty fussy. I want to feel that the context of words and the sentiment are understood. If there's not enough context, if it's fast or high -- I will ask about it. I'll talk to the composer and say that I'm requiring more comprehension for the words. I like real clarity in terms of the writing, plot and character motivation. This is something you should be able to hear. I think about how the accessibility of opera has changed. I remember when the COC started to do surtitles, which is great. If you didn't understand German, Italian or French then, you were left out and that's outrageously elitist!

JC: Did you go through your own journey making this opera?

MC: The main highlights of The Monkiest King concern the lessons of humility and codependence -- you need this before you become a hero. He thinks he can do anything and in the spiritual journey, he grows up. The piece is, in some ways, about friendship. The main character recognizes there is another Monkey that is equally skilled and ultimately, they work together. You find your friends where you're at.

A good friend of mine, who is a theatre director, directed the production back in 2018 (Nina Lee Aquino). We had never worked together and it felt like a close team. The entire creative team, design and production, was all female. That was unusual and also wonderful.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: Ken Hall

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