composer | director
Live video by Hans Hijmering, audio mix courtesy of NTR Radio 4
© Arnoud Noordegraaf / Barooni / Asko|Schönberg 2015
Act 1, overture
On the projection screen a number of fine black/white vector lines start to appear. These scroll across; the view then zooms in, zooms out … we are watching someone moving around within the 3D CAD file of an enormous architectural drawing. There are thousands and thousands of vector lines. Occasional details are recognisable when the view is zoomed in (e.g. a doorway, a floorplan), but rapidly become lost as the view zooms out again, and the flocking lines simply take on the abstract and rather beautiful quality of immensely detailed technical geometry. It suggests a fervid imagination at work on a monumental if not lunatic scheme.
Act 1, scene 1: Arrival in Tong Zie Ke
Luo Ling is singing the news in front of the teahouse. Kathy enters. She is just out of a taxi, and struggling a little to wheel her suitcase through the mud. Luo spots her, lays on an exaggerated performance as he finishes the news then immediately beckons her over and strikes up a conversation. Luo impresses on Kathy how famous they all are now in the village with the media attention that’s been focused on them. Kathy struggles to extract directions from him to Sem’s office. Finally as she drags herself away, Luo calls to remind her to visit Woman Wang, who is 99.
Act 1, scene 2: Old Friends
Kathy enters Sem’s office. They are happy to meet, they’re old friends and it’s been a long time. They chat a bit about the old days when they were both studying together, and Sem breaks into a story about his project. To illustrate how this giant dome will become a camera obscura, he takes an empty tin can, perforates the bottom and hangs it up side down on a string, so that the sunlight is projected onto the floor.
Then he explains about Wu Cai, the multi billionaire who initiated all this, and who’s paying for is. after showing her a Wu Cai commercial, Sem on stage describes how now Wu Cai has come back to TZK to throw the heavens at the feet of the mop women. The building is to be the statement of his boyhood dream: that of returning to the village rich, and building something extraordinary, transformative, utopian.
Act 1, scene 3: Skype scene
Sem opens up a Skype conversation, with Rotterdam based boss “M” and his assistant Winy, of M-Architects-Offices (MAO). Quite soon Wu Cai calls too (a second screen comes on stage). More and more conversations come in. People demanding Sem's immediate attention, building to nightmarish intensity. Wu Cai announces he wants to demolish the old village and rebuilt it as a tourist attraction. The pile drivers are starting already.
As the scene becomes further de-hitched from reality, Sem wanders around aimlessly and starts creeping backwards. He is being crushed by the relentless wall of hostile information, and starts to act out his inner panic. As the number of Skype windows augments, they increasingly become an incomprehensible verbal choir of threats, demands, unacceptable new information, offences upon reality. As things reach their climax, there is an accident on site, two construction workers have been killed. Sem rushes down to ground level.
Act 1, scene 4: The Farewell Aria
Sem is down at ground level, dejected and exhausted. He has been to inspect the accident, and now is feeling sorry for himself, and moaning to Kathy.
A Chinese TV crew arrives in TZK, setting up the film shoot. Mulan enters humming her aria. She is in traditional Chinese opera costume with painted face and walking in heightened fashion. She reaches the spotlight, tries out a few gestures, sings a fragment of a line, then stops. She looks across to offstage to check everything is rolling. Mulan starts her aria: a scene from the (fictional) opera Farewell Of The Concubine Fu Sang To Her Lord Kang.
By singing into the gaps of the missing character of Lord Kang, Sem stitches his song into that of Mulan. All of a sudden through the magic of opera, Sem is a warrior about to enter battle, and Mulan his passionate lover. At this point in the opera scene the two characters embrace, and accordingly Sem and Mulan embrace. Kathy looks on, smiling curiously.
Act 1, scene 5: Mulan's History
Mulan wakes up and takes a photo on her iPhone. She wakes up Sem to ask for the WIFI password. Then she starts to remove her make-up, at a table with a mirror on stage. Sem wakes up puzzled, and Mulan teases him. They have a short discussion about Modern China.
Mulan sings about her childhood memories. Her father was stern, made her keep a diary, how she would write secret love poems and throw them away. End: Mulan Twitters the photo of her and Sem.
Act 2, overture
Act 2, scene 1: Authenticity Village
At ground level, things have come along. The place is still a construction site, but is more crowded with materials than before: piles of traditional Chinese curved roofing tiles and brand new ‘aged’ housing bricks, as well as fresh piles of demolition rubble. Luo is in a brand new brightly coloured Authenticity Village villager uniform (plastic version of a traditional Chinese peasant costume. He sings the news.
Kathy hurries on stage, looking worriedly behind her. She has just returned to Tong Zi Ke to catch up with developments. They run through some of the changes going on — Luo is unequivocally pro-everything.
Act 2, scene 2: Balance in Risk
Kathy arrives in Sem’s office. The desk is a complete chaos of papers. On screen are a new set of considerably enhanced designs which now include high rise superhotels, luxury relaxation areas, shopping malls. Sem is in the middle of the room, half-dressed up in a Chinese opera emperor costume, It is somewhat painful to watch, but also hideously funny. Sem notices Kathy coming in but continues his choreography.
Mulan comes in and lovingly helps Sem, they almost freeze in their pose as Kathy sings a love aria about them. Mulan's ring tone breaks up the whole scene. Sem quarrels with her, until Kathy finds out the paparazzi have come to photograph woman Wang.
Act 2, scene 3: Nail House Aria
a more abstract aria, all 4 singers sing, media images show news coverage on Woman Wang, and there’s a time lapse in the piece.
Luo announces there will be a party for Woman Wang's 100th birthday. Fireworks light the sky.
Act 3, overture
Act 3, scene 1: Party Aftermath
The stage is littered with an abominable volume of cheap plastic crap. Sem is in a smart black tie outfit, but looks grim. Mulan emerges, wearing a gorgeous party dress, but also with a deeply unamused expression. She joins Sem, and together they look down on the grotesque sea of trash. Luo is hanging around drunk in the background and starts teasing Mulan, driving her away and making Sem mad. Sem gets into a fight with Luo and beats him violently and repeatedly, Luo remains motionless on the ground.
Act 3, scene 2: Self Criticism
In Sem’s office darkness predominates. On the ground on his knees Sem is muttering and fiddling with a board and a red felt pen. Kathy enters, seeing Sem in a somewhat horrific state. He is painting characters on his white sign. The set up is clearly derived from iconic images of the Cultural Revolution.
Sem tells Kathy he beat mister Luo. They hear a death dirge from below, and fear he has killed him.
Mulan arrives: Woman Wang is dead, Luo is fine sleeping off his hangover. A deal has been struck, the dome is on, Sem will draw, she will sing, and everyone will make money.
Sem is muttering on about the interior and exterior worlds, he can't get his head together anymore.
Act 3, scene 3: Bring in a Deer, Call it a Horse
Like scene 2.3, this scene unfolds in a freer space and time. It covers the global media fanfare that follows once the Woman Wang issue has been resolved and the dome speeds toward completion.
Kathy sings a solo aria, as if reading the preface from the book she published reflecting upon the whole opera, in fact it seems her book is the opera.
Act 3, scene 4: Opening Ceremony
Event of the opening: there is a brief glimpse of the red carpet — the arrivals etc., as we enter the dome itself. It’s represented by the very sculpture hanging above the live-stage; i.e. the metaphorical Dome turns into Weiwei’s artwork itself. We see Mulan come on as Fu Sang in her opera costume, and perform on screen. She sings.
As Mulan sings her aria on film, Sem enters on stage: he is in the 'real' world in the theatre but everyone else is in the 'real' world on film. She is saying goodbye, but goodbye to someone who isn’t there - to something that doesn’t exist. As she laments the death of an emptiness, the lonely appearance of Sem on stage focuses on his face. Consequently, in stage terms, Mulan is now physically enormous, filling the entire screen behind Sem.
As Mulan finishes the aria, all characters and extras break into a big applause, and then start leaving the space, until the set remains empty, as the music draws into it’s real finale.
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