Newspaper article The Canadian Press

17-Ton Ming Dynasty Temple Imported from China the Centrepiece of COC's 'Semele': Chinese Temple Centrepiece of Opera 'Semele'

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

17-Ton Ming Dynasty Temple Imported from China the Centrepiece of COC's 'Semele': Chinese Temple Centrepiece of Opera 'Semele'

Article excerpt

TORONTO - An intricate 450-year-old Chinese temple is the evocative centrepiece for the Canadian Opera Company's production of "Semele," a baroque opera that's been given an "East meets West" theme.

Using the Ming Dynasty temple he salvaged from a small town in China, visual and creative artist Zhang Huan has created a beautiful canvas that melds cultures and traditions for performances of George Frideric Handel's opera, which features Juno Award-winning Jane Archibald in the leading role.

The North American premiere is Wednesday. The opera runs to May 26.

But getting the temple to the stage proved to be a mammoth undertaking. And as if that wasn't enough, the production includes flame and water special effects, flying performers, sumo wrestlers, giant inflatables and a large-scale projection of a documentary depicting the history of the temple that's shown during the overture.

"Our director Zhang Huan has chosen to use this real piece of history on the stage rather than constructing some artificial sets," assistant director Allison Grant recently told reporters backstage at the Four Seasons Centre.

"His decision to use this antique temple is not so much a desire for greater realism but a belief that singing in the actual temple will be more adequately portrayed in this very human story."

The structure's adulterous contemporary history parallels the plot of "Semele." When Zhang was moving the temple to his studio in Shanghai after buying it in 2007, he found a diary written by the previous owner, Fang Jixin. Jealous of his wife, Ruan Jinmei, for being unfaithful, Fang murdered one of her lovers. He was executed by a firing squad about 20 years ago. Ruan later sold the temple to provide for her young son.

In the opera "Semele," the mortal character Semele is punished for her affair with the god Jupiter.

"This story seemed somewhat operatic and Zhang Huan felt that there was a parallel between these two stories," Grant said.

"There are underlying themes in both 'Semele' and in this story of Jinmei's jealous husband of lust and greed and sex ... and violent death. So in this story of the ambitious Semele and her ultimate death and her jealous husband and his ultimate death there are definite parallels."

In using the temple, technical director David Feheley said one of the biggest challenges is that they're dealing with something that is real, not a piece of scenery designed to be taken apart and moved. And because the Canadian Opera Company has several productions running simultaneously, the 17-ton temple needed to be portable.

"A huge challenge for us is just to get the temple on and off the stage," he said. "It wasn't built to run in rep."

A special platform on wheels was created to hold the huge structure and allow it to be pulled forward and pushed back. …

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