Based on the tragic tale of Giacomo Puccini’s operatic masterpiece Madame Butterfly, Cho Cho is a bilingual drama set in Shanghai about the heroine’s life that combines music and theatre as well as poetry and puppetry.
Presented by the National Theatre of China, Arts Centre Melbourne and Playking Productions, Cho Cho’s (then Cho Cho San) first incarnation was as a puppet play by playwright Daniel Keene and Handspan in 1984 before it was picked up by Playbox in 1986 and subsequently presented in Australia and China in 1988 by Playking Productions.
It was back in 1984, that current director Peter Wilson (Puppetry Director for King Kong, The Dragon Child) was a puppeteer on the original production of Cho Cho San with the legendary Handspan Theatre. "I was subsequently invited to perform in the 1987/88 Playbox production which toured nationally and to China," says Wilson who became fascinated by the Daniel Keene script and excited about how central puppetry was to that script. Wilson elaborates: "The '87/88 Playbox productions allowed audiences to see how important and exciting puppetry was to story telling. The role of puppeteer/witness in that Playbox production play was one of the most exciting pieces of puppet theatre I had been involved in and is still, to this day. The 2 central puppet characters were a great example of the power of the puppet. The National Theatre of China's Production equally places the puppetry at the centre of the work."
Cho Cho is possibly the first truly bilingual (Chinese/English) opera. The script is in Mandarin and English and is surtitled in both. The creative team is totally cross-cultural. Wilson admits that this 2013 production offered many challenges and perhaps the most significant was creating a truly bi lingual piece of Music Drama. "Working across cultures has been at the centre of much of my work over the past 35 years but this production of Cho Cho presented a great opportunity to create something unique in puppet theatre," Wilson explains. "This production, set in Shanghai in the 30s and with an original score by Chinese composer Chiang Jin, Design by Australian designer Richard Jeziorny, challenged each of these artists. All the actors had never worked with puppetry before and this took some time for them to adjust to playing against the inanimate."
"There are always challenges when working across two languages – misunderstandings of intention, both Chinese and Australian actors learning each others language – understanding the rhythms of how scenes work – a new score with a mix of both Chinese songs and western music influences and finding a way for all the actors to understand a different way of making theatre through the visual theatre form. It was also critical that we stayed true to and understood cultural specifics -the period for costumes – the design – and any cultural references."
"It is true to say that each day presented a range of challenges for both the actors and the creative team," states Wilson when asked to elaborate on some of the cultural differences inherent in the creative process vis a vis production values and philosophies. "Both the Chinese and Australian actors are leading performers in their own countries. Misunderstandings of language was a daily occurrence. Keeping the mobile phone our of the rehearsal room became a consistent theme. All performers associated with the project suffered at one stage or another nasty flus, it being mid winter. The designer was consistently being asked to change some of his costume designs and losing my Assistant Director into week 2 from illness for the balance of the rehearsal process along with the Stage Manager who was absent from the rehearsal room for long periods of time certainly challenged one's humour throughout the process."
Challenges aside, Wilson describes walking into the rehearsal room on day one in Beijing back in November 2012 as an incredibly exciting moment "Taking all the actors through the project on that day and watching their excitement build throughout the process as the work took shape and form," he says. " Having worked closely with the composer over the previous year and listening to the music come to life was a great thrill. I also felt honoured to have been given the opportunity to work with the National Theatre of China."
The original story was inspired by the then-common Japanese custom of allowing foreign visitors to take ‘temporary’ wives; even as American sailor Pinkerton prepares to marry Cho Cho (the butterfly), he is toasting his future ‘real’ American wife. Relocated to 1930s Shanghai with a young Chinese girl waiting for her American navy lover, this is a reimagined production which features a reworked script, completely new score and new design. "Cho Cho is a theatrical first – the first bi lingual piece of Music Drama – it is the first project of its kind between Australia and China. The story is a known story, a love story that has endured time and I would invite audiences to come and see this most beautiful of productions," Wilson enthuses. " The marriage of both Chinese and western music, a simple but beautifully designed stage and costumes, and a musical score that crosses back and forth through both cultures in two languages. The art form of Puppetry sits very much at the centre of this new work."
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne, National Theatre of China and Playking Productions
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
2 – 6 October 2013