Untold review - pzazz theater
29 April 2023, pzazz theater
Translation from Dutch (original article here)
Cinderellas for whom nowhere quite feels like home
In 805 the Chinese documented a fairy-tale, Ye Xian, that closely resembles ‘our’ ‘Cinderella’, a story from the 18th century. Composer Alex Ho adapted the tale into a musical theatre performance. Just like the rest of the cast and director Julia Cheng, Ho is of Chinese origin, but lives and works in Europe. And yet he still feels a strong connection to his country of origin. This fact poignantly colours the performance. The work deservingly won the international Fedora Opera Prize this year.
In Ye Xian’s fairy-tale, a magic fish comes to the aid of a poor girl, enabling her to dazzle at the royal ball. Naturally the king falls in love with her, but the girl must flee in time before the spell is broken. While doing this she loses a golden slipper. The king searches desperately for the foot, and the girl, that the shoe fits.
This story may be very similar to the European one, but it has never previously been told here. It remained ‘Untold’, hence the title of the piece. However it is also about similarities and differences between two cultures. Composer Alex Ho constantly moves between the two. He has a passion for Asian instruments, and wants to give these a place in the sound world of the West. So in this award-winning composition, a yangqin (a kind of cimbalom) and Japanese drums sit alongside a flute and a piano. This Western flute is suffused with Japanese colour. It sounds like the flute that is used in Kabuki theatre. The score thus ingeniously intertwines two cultures: the timbre is Chinese, whilst the music leans towards the European avant-garde. Ho’s score sounds austere, even brittle, with frequent silences. It is closer to the concision of von Webern than to post-Romantic emotional outbursts.
This music was performed by an unusual cast. It is solely composed of artists with Chinese roots, all of whom nonetheless work in England, the United States or France. Incidentally, the musicians go far beyond simply playing their instruments here. They act with graceful gestures, and run and jump with exceptional agility. Joanne Chiang certainly makes a lasting impression when she underpins the action with deep drum beats and a Chinese gong.
Two figures stand out. On the one hand, there is counter-tenor Keith Pun in the role of the king. He became so mesmerised by the vocals of a Western counter-tenor that he made this technique completely his own, despite his Chinese background. He performs a long, brilliant aria as the enamoured king. Jasmine Chiu dances the role of the girl, in an inventive choreography by Julia Cheng.
Photo credit: Nika Prokopenka
The intention of this performance, however, is to do more than tell an old fairy-tale to a Western audience. During the course of the piece, every performer has the opportunity to speak and to briefly sketch out their life. In these pertinent texts, the performers talk about what it means to live in the West, while the culture of Asian parents or grandparents still exerts a strong pull on you.
They talk about how this act of straddling can be painful, and about racism towards those of Asian origin. When you move between two worlds, two cultures, it is ultimately a question of ‘Who am I’. This should be enriching, but is certainly not always so. A migrant is more often someone for whom nowhere quite feels like home.
So this old story, a musical intermingling of East and West, becomes more than an eye-pleasing, intriguing and convincing performance. The piece is certainly all of the above, but most importantly it is deeply moving on a human level. This ‘Untold’ allows a European audience to feel what it means to be part of a society that is not completely alien to you, but in which you never completely find your place. With it, Muziektheater Transparant made a wonderful contribution to the ‘All Arias’ festival, which seeks out new forms of musical theatre.