Public Art Project

Opera, Theatre Royal de La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgrum, 2009

Le Theatre Royal de la Monnaie / de Munt (the National Opera of Belgium) will provide the stage for Zhang Huan to make his directorial and scenographic debut with Semele, a Baroque opera in three acts composed by George Frideric Handel in 1743. Zhang Huan will take the conservative world of classical opera and present it through the lens of a contemporary Chinese artist; this will be the first time ever that an artist has taken on the role of stage director for an opera.

The story of Semele is adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Daughter of the Theban King Cadmus, Semele is betrothed to a mortal prince but loves the god Jupiter. She allows herself to be taken away by Jupiter, leaving her anxious family behind to fear the wrath of the gods and the fate of the kingdom.

Upon learning that her husband has built a palace for Semele, Juno unleashes her plot to destroy the mortal. Inducing Somnus, God of Sleep, to cast Semele’s sister Ino into a deep slumber, Juno then transforms into the young Ino and takes advantage of Semele’s trustfulness and immaturity to lead her down the path to her own destruction. A vain and covetous Semele offers Jupiter what he wants - her body - so long as the god agrees to grant her sole wish. The mighty thunderer concedes, unknowing that the thing Semele wants will lead to her destruction.

Zhang Huan will tell the story of Semele’s transmigration, interpreting this Greco-Roman myth through the Buddhist concepts of yin and guo, "cause" and "effect." The idea of karma will be emphasized, that Semele’s actions ultimately determined her fate. Zhang Huan will be importing many elements of Chinese culture to Brussels this fall, including the main set for the opera: the wooden structure of a 450 year old ancestral family temple acquired from a small town several hours outside of Shanghai. The stories of the gods and mortals - stories of love, hate, suspicion, jealousy, greed and lust - will play out against a backdrop that was once the stage for similar events unfolding a universe away, in real time, between the Chinese who lived there. Zhang Huan’s Semele is a narrative as Chinese as it is Greek, as Contemporary as it is Classical, and this unique stage will make it as much as reality as it is a myth, as much a story of humans as one of gods.

Zhang Huan will be joined by acclaimed Baroque conductor Christophe Rousset and his orchestra Les Talens Lyriques. The cast will include two of China’s most talented opera professionals, soprano Ying Huang (Semele) and mezzo-soprano Ning Liang (Juno/Ino), as well as English tenor Jeremy Ovenden (Jupiter). Additional roles include Nathan Berg (Cadmus/Priest), David Hansen (Athamas), Kurt Gysen (Somnus), Sabina Puertolas (Iris) and the 28 members from the Chorus de la Monnaie. Celebrated Chinese fashion designer Han Feng will be the Costume Designer. Wolfgang Göebbel, renowned on the world opera stage, will collaborate as Lighting Designer. In Shanghai, Zhang will work closely with Assistant Director of Movements and Choreographer Su Jie and Assistant Scenographer and Technical Director Liu Weidong.

Zhang Huan’s Semele will debut on September 8 with a spectacular gala performance in Brussels and subsequently run on the 10,12, 18, 20, 22, 24, 27, 29 for a total of 9 performances in September 2009. It will be co-produced and made possible with the help of the KT Wong Foundation.

La Monnaie has selected Zhang Huan as "Artist of the Season" for 2009-2010. A Zhang Huan solo show of contemporary art related to and inspired by Semele will stretch throughout Brussels, making this an event that transcends the walls of the opera house and inspires the entire city.