The local self-described activist opera company White Snake Projects is gearing up for the open of their new season on September 22. The season kicks off with a world premiere of a unique new opera called "Monkey: a Kung Fu Puppet Parable". The show combines traditional Japanese Bunraku puppetry, computer generated images, and live opera to retell a classic Chinese fable called "Monkey King: Journey to the West", rewritten to reflect contemporary issues from multicultural American life. GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with White Snake Projects founder Cerise Lim Jacobs about the show. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: I'm thrilled to have you back to talk about this piece, because I have to confess, I was completely unfamiliar with your source material here, and it sounds like something I would be crazy about. So first, tell us about this original story, "The Monkey King". It actually tells the story of a Chinese monkey who visits the West?
Cerise Lim Jacobs: Yes, it does. So, Monkey is based on the iconic 16th-century classic. It's a saga called "Journey to the West" and every Asian person grows up with Monkey. Growing up in Singapore, Monkey was my superhero. We didn't have Superman, but we had Super Monkey and it has always been a dream of mine to bring Monkey to the operatic stage because this is a quest saga. So, it's epic and just the stuff that opera needs to deal with and is rewritten, as is White Snake Projects' want, to reflect contemporary issues of our times.
Rath: It's interesting reading about this story. You mentioned it's from the 16th-century, but it's still quite popular.
Lim Jacobs: It is one of the most popular stories in all of East Asia. There are numerous TV series, cartoons, Chinese opera, movies, and TV series made about it and this is the first time that we're going to have a (Western) operatic treatment of it. When I was writing and recreating the piece, I found out when I deconstructed it that the structure and the story line of Monkey is "The Wizard of Oz" story, and since Monkey is 16th-Century, then of course, "The Wizard of Oz" is based on Monkey. You know, it's really truly amazing. Just to draw you the comparison, in "The Wizard of Oz", we have Dorothy and the three companions, the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, going on a journey to see the wizard because they want something that is lacking in them. Right? A heart, a brain and so on. Well, in the 16th-century tale, a monk is going west to pick up the Buddhist sutras to bring back to China and he has three disciples: a pig, a sand demon, and our hero, Monkey. All of them, again, are missing some essential element of their humanity and it is through this journey that they find out what it is and, at the end, become transformed. So, you can see the almost identical parallels. I mean, that's it in a nutshell.
Rath: That's awesome. So, you did the adaptation, you wrote the libretto for this opera, right? How did you rework this to reflect modern, multicultural, Asian American issues?
Lim Jacobs: Well, we started off with the commissioning of the piece. It would have been very easy for me to commission a Chinese American composer because it's an iconic Chinese story. But instead of doing that, we wanted to continue our experiment into making new American opera based on the reality that is in American society today, namely our multicultural, diverse society. So, we commissioned Jorge Sosa, who I have collaborated with in the past, and he's a Mexican American composer. So, the sound world of Monkey is going to be an amalgam of Mexican, Chinese, other Asian cultures, rock influences, and a new sound that I think traditional opera goers will have never heard.I think people who come to see the show without knowing anything about opera will be absolutely delighted with it, because it is sounds that they hear in their own lives.
Rath: A lot of mix visually as well, because I know the puppetry style is a classical Japanese style, right?
Lim Jacobs: Yes, it is. So, Monkey is based on a Bunraku style of puppetry and the pig is a giant, seven- or eight-feet tall, what we call a backpack puppet, which has to be strapped onto the back of a performer. And she is this amazing, ethereal, flowing sand creature puppet. I think that, visually, it's a feast because you have live singers on stage with a children's chorus, Voices Boston, shout out to them and our adult ensemble. We have the puppets all done by our puppet artists, and then we have computer generated 3D images. So, our three disciples live as live singers, as puppets and as 3D avatars. It's going to be quite the show.
Rath: Tell us about this ensemble piece, "The Long March West".
Lim Jacobs: "The Long March West" is a tableau scene which shows the passing of time and the trials and tribulations that the disciples and the monks face along the way. And of course, just the phrase "Long March" echoes the long march that Mao and his company did during the Chinese Revolution of 1949, and it's a marching song which gives the pilgrims fortitude to carry on despite the winds, sleet, rain, snow, heat, wildfires, etc. All these horrible climate change things that are assailing us now, and that's the sort of camaraderie type song.
Rath: Well, a long march on a lot of different levels there.
Lim Jacobs: Yes, it is. It speaks to the metaphorical and emotional journey that they are going on. It speaks to the cultural background of the long march. It speaks to the overcoming of trials and tribulations, and it speaks really to the fortitude of the human spirit. So that's that whole section.
Rath: Cerise, once again, it's been a blast talking with you. This looks like such an amazing production. I can't wait to see it. Thank you.
Lim Jacobs: Thank you so much, Arun. I do want to note that this is appropriate for families with children eight years and older.
White Snake Projects' "Monkey: a Kung Fu Puppet Parable", runs September 22-24 at the Emerson Paramount Center theater.