What does putting a real temple on stage add to an opera production?

(CLARIFICATION: The first paragraph is changed, in response to the Canadian Opera Company’s objection that I had unjustifiably described the logs as showing signs of dry rot and termite damage.)

While at the Four Seasons Centre yesterday to do an interview, I was allowed a sneak peek at the construction site in the backstage wings, where, after rehearsal hours, crews are assembling a real Ming-era Chinese temple for the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming production of Handel’s Semele.

This is an unusual production, masterminded by Linda Wong Davies, of the KT Wong Foundation. Aiming to bridge the traditional cultures of China and Europe, the project paired Chiense visual artist Zhang Huan with Handel, with interesting results at the production’s fall 2009 premiere at the Théâtre de a Monnaie, in Brussels.

There’s lots more to write about the production later. The COC is also preparing a time-lapse video of the construction of the temple, which the company will post on their website after the construction is complete.

But one question is nagging me now: Why do we need to have a real, ancient temple inside a modern opera house?

If we can suspend disbelief when confronted with performance narrative, why do we need a real-world object — rather than a cheaper, lighter, no-need-to-insure-it balsawood and styrofoam replica — planted in the middle of everything?

It’s like having real elephants on stage for Aida; we seem to have a real need to mix fiction with palpable (and smellable) fact, and I feel strange that I don’t understand this.

John Terauds


3 thoughts on “What does putting a real temple on stage add to an opera production?

  1. I agree completely. And one would think this artifact adds needlessly to the expense of the production, be it due to insurance, more man-hours required for assembly or transportation costs.

    I’d much prefer the COC spend the money on quality singers (which thankfully seems to be the case these days) rather than this kind of fake ‘authenticity’.

  2. Wow. Every opera production comes with its own visual concept and many of them are grand, expensive, extravagant. That is the nature of opera, and most opera lovers would not have it any other way. There should be no trade-off between spending money on the production versus spending it on the musicians. Every element should be done to the highest standard. Zhang Huan’s real temple WILL create a unique, mystical setting for this piece. You mentioned the smell. This temple smells like camphor wood. Not styrofoam.

    By the way, I work for the COC and have been there for the entire temple construction process.

    • Hi Barney,
      Thanks for the note.
      The “smellable” was referring to elephants and horses.
      I didn’t notice a smell when I was backstage at the Four seasons Centre last week.

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