The Director Using Technology to Reshape Opera

Chen Shi-Zheng is directing the world’s first digital production of the “Ring Cycle”, a 15-hour operatic saga performed over four nights.

Article by Emma Pegrum

Chen Shi-Zheng is thought to be the first Chinese director of the “Ring Cycle”, which is in itself historic. Photography by Rhiannon Hopley.

Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng is known for his innovative use of technology in theatre and for fusing elements of the Eastern and Western cultures he’s spent his life between to great dramatic effect. Now charged by Opera Australia with the world’s first digital production of German composer Richard Wagner’s 150-year-old operatic masterpiece the “Ring Cycle”, Chen is reimagining a great mythical world of dragons, dwarves, giants, Valkyries and gods for a new age.

Cutting-edge screen technology will provide the futuristic backdrop for Chen’s retelling of the four-part saga, which is famously performed in four separate productions across four nights to total 15 hours of viewing. Premiering with three complete cycles at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in late October and November, Chen’s “Ring” will push the boundaries not just of technology, but of opera itself, with Chen saying audiences will be challenged to think about theatre — and the world — differently.

“The world is changing very fast,” Chen says. “Stagecraft was developed after the Industrial Revolution, 100 years ago. We’re now living in the digital age. We need to establish a new way of using technology to create stage work. It’s part of connecting with the imagination; it’s the way people know, so you can channel that [as a director].”

One particularly impressive spectacle is a 15-metre-tall steel model representing the “Tree of Life”, underneath which occurs the opera’s pivotal scene. Photography by Rhiannon Hopley.

The original opera, Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, took the prolific composer some 25 years to write and was first staged in 1876, fittingly, in a purpose-built theatre. Now known simply as “the Ring”, it comprises four complex parts and various intersecting character-driven plotlines that orbit around the eponymous enchanted ring, which grants global dominion to the person who wears it. It is widely considered the Everest of opera, not just for its monumental appeal to directors, but also for the challenge it presents to audiences, who must commit to all four sittings or see none at all.

But Chen doesn’t believe the task is too tall for modern audiences. He observes how they ritualistically tune in week after week for years-long sagas like “Game of Thrones” and spectator sports such as football and cricket. People want to be immersed in things, he says. Why not theatre?

Chen’s set will comprise 23 LED screen panels, eight on either side of the stage and 15 forming a curved wall at the rear, all suspended from the ceiling on an automated tracking system that allows movement about the space according to the director’s choreography. “The panels form the world, the environment you’re watching for 15 hours,” he says. “That’s a lot of digital images that combine with the music.”

One particularly impressive spectacle is a 15-metre-tall steel model representing the “Tree of Life”, underneath which occurs the opera’s pivotal scene (think titular hero, dragon, sword). It was concocted from a 3D scan of a bonsai tree Chen found in a garden in Suzhou, a city in Jiangsu Province in eastern China. “I looked at all these trees in Australia, New Zealand, America, but they weren’t intricate enough,” he says. “This one kind of has its own mystery, its own life to present in this place.”

Chen’s set will comprise 23 LED screen panels, eight on either side of the stage and 15 forming a curved wall at the rear. Photography by Rhiannon Hopley.

Chen is thought to be the first Chinese director of the “Ring Cycle”, which is in itself historic. Theatre’s many reinterpretations of the work haven’t much deviated from its Western origin. But Chen grew up in the turbulence of China’s Cultural Revolution, studied opera as a teenager in New York City and now spends his life between there and Shanghai – he lives “between worlds” and sees deep universal meaning embedded in Wagner’s work.

He set out wanting to create a “hybrid” version of the story that helps viewers transcend “small-minded” ways of thinking about the world and identity that he feels have become commonplace in today’s society, amounting to a “new tribal culture” that threatens our collective survival. “I believe people are smarter [than that],” he says. “People should be looking out, not always confined by their own experience. If I can reimagine this world,” in “the Ring”, “then I would love to bring everybody else along to see our interconnectedness.”

To create a world that’s universally resonant, Chen is dropping any reference to specific time or place from the work and swapping the mythological for the sci-fi. The use of the innovative screen technology will conspire with Chen’s masterful merging of cultural influences, futuristic costuming and digital-image nature elements to immerse viewers in a kind of intergalactic realm of possibility — a parallel universe. “I don’t want to just confirm our knowledge of our existence,” says Chen. “I want people to go outside the box, to think about everybody else and whether we can share certain knowledge or experience. I’m trying to invite the audience into a kind of dreamscape.” He says he aims to “put them in the right state of mind to really penetrate their focus in this opera, without escaping.”

The undertaking is bound to have its critics, but for Chen, that’s part of the point. “Theatre tends to be complacent, always looking at culture in a linear way,” he says. “But we are living in a hybrid world that has broken that linear tradition. I want people to recognise how complex our lives have become.”