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Attrackted by the boundless possibilities in modern China, the European architect Sem Aers has been lured into designing a spectacular megastructure in a remote Chinese village. Whilst there, he has a passionate love affair with the famous opera singer Qin Mulan. But just as under the layers of opera make-up and costumes, Mulan turns out be a canny, modern business woman. In a similar way his dream project turns out to be unreal. Mixing traditional Kunqu opera with Wagnerian late romanticism, the Dutch composer Arnoud Noordegraaf evokes the clashes between East and West, tradition and modernity, romance and reality – conflicts which are also expressed through the inventive stage design and film projections by Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist.
When in China, you can dream. Just as the United States were the epitome of endless possibilities in the previous century, these days adventurers spread their wings in the state capitalist playground of the world's fastest growing economy. In China, dreams can come true.
As Big As The Sky, Dutch composer and director Arnoud Noordegraaf's latest multimedia opera, deals with the Chinese dream – and with dreams which collide with reality. The world famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei created the stage design and the accompanying film, this being the first time he's ventured into the realm of music theatre. The libretto is by British writer Adrian Hornsby, whom Noordegraaf collaborated with on A.M., Noordegraaf's music theatre production which was set in Tokyo and featured at the Holland Festival in 2011. The music is performed by Asko|Schönberg. A new production, As Big As The Sky will have its world premiere at the Holland Festival.
Set against the backdrop of China's unprecedented building boom, As Big As The Sky, in the best tradition of the opera genre, also tells the story of a doomed love. In a remote Chinese village, the European architect Sem Aers is working on an outrageous mammoth building project commissioned by the showy self-made millionaire Wu Cai. Having grown up amongst the cows and rice paddies of this village, Wu has returned to build a monument to his own success and the rise of his country as a new superpower. Capturing China's success story of utopian transformation in architecture, Sem has designed the largest dome in the world, which will arch high over the village, completely encompassing it. Putting a small hole in the very top of the roof, the dome will become a gigantic camera obscura, projecting the image of the sky over the village and its surrounding fields.
While the enormous construction is being built at a fast pace, Sem is getting mixed up in talks with different parties. At the European head office of the architectural firm he's working for, they're worried about the negative publicity in the Western press, which is criticising the project for being too ostentatious and accusing the builders of destroying local culture. In turn, Wu is insisting that the original village is bulldozed to be rebuilt as an 'authentic' Chinese village for staging traditional opera performances, in order to attract tourism. The Chinese opera star and national celebrity Qin Mulan has been engaged to perform at the opening of the dome. Dealing with these various conflicting interests, Sem is struggling to determine his position in all this. When Qin Mulan arrives on site for a rehearsal, Sem falls head over heels in love – with her beauty, her voice, and with the traditional Chinese culture which she seems to embody. Yet underneath the chinoiserie which Sem projects onto her, Qin Mulan is a modern media-savvy woman with strong business instincts.
While Sem and Qin embark on a love affair which soon reaches the public eye, the building project is running into difficulties. An old lady is refusing to leave her home, which is now standing out like a sore thumb in the flattened, excavated building site. With the house fast becoming a symbol of the destructive character of China's building craze, Sem finds himself having to face the uncomfortable truth that to realise his dream project, a high price has been paid.
Ai Weiwei's film projections play an important role in the depiction of the contrast between the two conflicting worlds in which the opera unfolds. The stage design merges seamlessly with projections of architectural plans, video conferences, twitter feeds, television news and documentary footage of the rapidly changing Chinese landscape. Musically, Noordegraaf brings together two contrasting genres, evoking the two conflicting worlds in the opera: traditional Kunqu opera and Wagnerian late Romanticism, both employed in a contemporary fashion. Variously quoting, morphing or contrasting these different styles, Noordegraaf employs his music to convey his multi-layered story of media, power and love. As well as the regular ensemble, which play on the stage, he has also included the Chinese reed instrument the sheng and a whole array of unconventional percussion – including some scaffolding – into his score.