In much the same vein as Einstein on the Beach, the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration that 21 years ago galvanized audiences and changed the world of theatre, modern dance, music, and performance art -- Marco Polo arrives on Nov. 8 at New York City Opera.
Once again the collaborative forces are both exotic, a touch familiar -- and highly combustible (per reports from last year's world premiere of the work in Munich and Gramophone's royal rave for the recently released Sony Classical recording).
With music by Chinese-born composer Tan Dun; libretto by music critic Paul Griffiths (who wrote the novel Myself and Marco Polo, on which the opera is loosely based); and direction and choreography by Martha Clarke, Marco Polo examines the physical and spiritual journeys of the legendary Venetian explorer as it interweaves all sorts of legendary figures from Kublai Khan to Shakespeare. In one scene, composer Gustav Mahler even meets up with the Chinese writer Li Po, whose poetry became the basis for Mahler's monumental song cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth").
Singling out designers like Calvin Klein and choreographers like Mark Morris who have created something unique out of existing vocabularies, Tan, 40, says that he hates when well-meaning critics describe his work as "East meets West." What he is trying to do, he says, is "create a new language" -- a synthesis of his childhood in a small Hunan village (where, as a teenager, he worked for a time in the rice fields) to his present-day life on New York's Lower East Side.
To that end, in Marco Polo he moves freely between the Western classical opera tradition and the ritualistic, hauntingly percussive world of the Peking Opera. Two different singers are employed to portray the title character: mezzo-soprano Laura Tucker is the young traveler "Marco" and tenor Adam Klein the older, more reflective "Polo." "It's very hard to define this piece except to say that it's a remarkable theatrical experience," says Paul Kellogg, the new general and artistic director of New York City Opera. "Marco Polo is something that happens to you almost in spite of yourself."
In addition to the creative personnel cited above, Marco Polo's set designer is Debra Booth and the costume designer is Jane Greenwood. All performances of the opera will be conducted by Tan Dun.
Marco Polo opens Nov. 8 at New York's Lincoln Center, with additional performances scheduled for Nov. 15 (mat), Nov. 19, and Nov. 22. For tickets, call (212) 870-5570.
-- By Rebecca Paller