Also if you click 'Read More' below you can read an article from Manchester's City Life newspaper about the show, which sees Jamie state: "This is the next Gorillaz project".
City Life - Manchester International Festival supplement
Not Just Monkeying Around
Damon Albarn gets serious as his latest collaborative project, opening the Manchester International Festival, takes Gorillaz to an operatic level, writes Kevin Bourke
One word you can hear a lot around the production of Monkey : Journey TO The West is "ambitious".
It's not an unreasonable description of the show set to open this year's first-ever Manchester International Festival. BAsed on a centuries-old Chinese epic, it's adapted and directed by Chinese Opera, theatre and film director Chen Shi-Zheng and features music composed by Damon Albarn, with visual concept and design by his Gorillaz buddy Jamie Hewlett.
Oh, and the cast includes doznes of acrobats, contortionists, aerialists and martial artists, all of whom have to be able to sing as well, on a set so dazzlingly elaborate that it's had to be constructed in several different countries. Meanwhile the musicians have been rehearsing in one country, the performers in another and the various prosthetics and costimes elsewhere. Finally, it's all coming together at the Palace Theatre this week.
"This has all been a bit outside our comfort zone, but that was the point really," laughs Hewlett, as a huge Buddha suddenly appears in view at the back of the Palace stage, prompting audible gasps from the 'seen-it-all-before' crew busily setting things up.
"People say I'm laid-back just because I don't get panicked," acknowledges Chen Shi-Zheng. "I strive for chaos, some people say because that's when I feel like I'm in my comfort zone. But after all it's all there in front of an audience, I usually get to go off and hide somewhere for a while."
Hang on a minute, though. So Damon Albarn is composing music for a "proper opera", is he? That's a long way from Blur, Gorillaz or The Good, The Bad And The Queen.
"This is composition, not songwriting," Damon points out. "Of course, I was aprehensive at first. But people who come from my normal discipline don't tend to go far enough. We want to bring more flavour to people's lives. And demystify opera to a degree, destroy its elitist angle. Then for people who do like opera, open them up to new forms of music, too. We want to bring a big cornerstone of Chinese culture and present it to the West. If we can do that, then we've succeeded."
Festival director Alex Poots adds: "The Festival brought Gorillaz to the table when we were first in discussions with our lead co-producer Jean Luc Choplin at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, and Jean Luc had been working with Chen Shi-Zheng. But Damon was free to work in whatever form he thought best and it was he who decided it had to be opera."
"This is the next Gorillaz project," offers Jamie, "And this is what we do. We have to up the stakes every time. Opera is just a term for drama in theatre that's led entirely by music.
"People can be scared of operas, especially when they're in Mandarin. People will be astounded by this show, but they have to take that leap of faith. Of course, it's been worrying but it's exhilirating too because that's where the excitement is, the challenge.
"This has dominated our lives for months and months, ever since we got that first call from Alex. At first, we really didn't know whether we could do it at all, so we said 'Let us go to China with Chen Shi-Zheng and we'll see how that goes.' We thought that if we didn't fancy doing it at least we'd have had time in China!"
From his point of view, says Shi-Zheng, " I was looking for someone young and smart to work with. I didn't want to give Damon or Jamie too specific a brief because what was important in this project was that it was their sensibility we wanted. Waht Damon and I did agree on straightaway was that we didn't want pastiche Chinese music and on the last trip we made he found something he could latch on to."
Jamie admits: "I didn't think it would this much work! But now we have what's probably the most exciting thing I've ever worked on. It's the sort of show that was always going to be fraught with danger and that gives it this really full-on feeling of non-stop, in-your-face entertainment. You won't have the opportunity to get bored, I'll tell you that."