As I begin work on The Golden Dragon in preparation for the UK Tour, I am constantly reminded of the fact that this is fantastic theatre, based on a masterful play. Composer Peter Eötvös has turned this play into a thrilling piece of music theatre, with extraordinary music that deepens the power of the original text and provides an additional layer of characterisation. As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect territory for Music Theatre Wales. For audiences, it’s the perfect introduction to our work and to the world of music theatre.
The original play is by one of Germany’s most important and recognised playwrights – Roland Schimmelpfennig. His work has been performed across the globe, and his most recent play, Winter Solstice, was performed by ATC following their huge success with The Golden Dragon, and was another example of the way he explores a troubling contemporary political and social issue through overtly theatrical means. In the case of The Golden Dragon, the performers introduce the characters they are about to play, and then we watch the performer take on the role, with lashings of humour and theatrical relish. In so many ways, the idea of translating this play into an opera seems to break all the rules: the singers are required to play multiple roles, often cross-gender, and they narrate the story they then perform – not the usual territory for singing, which usually attempts to reveal the emotional truth of the character and the drama.
However, as the piece moves from slap-stick knockabout comedy into much darker areas such as sexual exploitation, the music starts to dig ever deeper. There are some extraordinary moments of vocal characterisation, such as the overwhelming excitement of the Grandfather who sees his Granddaughter glowing in her pregnancy, and the immature boyfriend who cannot cope with the concept of fatherhood, but the moment when the operatic necessity of musicalisation and sung text really rings true, comes towards the end of the opera as the body of The Little One floats home to China. He had toothache, but with no money and no papers, he couldn’t see a dentist, so the other cooks took the matter into their own hands. The young soprano who performs the role narrates the journey home and composer Peter Eötvös turns this into a moving and highly charged “aria”. The Little One never sings about how he feels – none of the opera cliché stuff about love or death – but through the singing and the music we fully understand exactly how his spirit feels to be returning home, as so many migrants might wish to do but are never able to achieve, dead or alive.
And so The Golden Dragon shines a light on the plight of so many lives lost and exploited through migration, but never in a didactic or tub-thumping way. This isn’t the old theatre of political protest, but a thoroughly entertaining and engaging piece of storytelling that draws us in and leaves us thinking about what may be going on right under our noses, right here and now.
Image: CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL
It is an incredible privilege to be working on an opera that through brilliant text and music is also right on the nail in terms of contemporary relevance. I want to share it with as many people as possible, especially theatre goers who may think “Opera” is not for them. It may well not be, but this is not “Opera” as you know it.
SHERMAN THEATRE Friday 22nd September
BIRMINGHAM REP Tuesday 3rd October
BASINGSTOKE ANVIL Thursday 12 October
PONTIO BANGOR Wednesday 18 October
SNAPE MALTINGS ALDEBURGH Saturday 21st October
HACKNEY EMPIRE Tuesday 31st October
So what is Arts Scene in Wales?: