With his opera Marco Polo (English libretto: Paul Griffiths) the New York based Chinese composer Tan Dun has created a distinctive version of the great explorer’s famous journey to China and the time he spent there (1271–95). Marco Polo himself lived from 1254 to 1324.
The journey, which he made with his father and uncle, was chronicled by Marco Polo in 1298 with some assistance from Rustichello of Pisa, while both were prisoners of war in Genoa. The book was widely read and popular, though hard to swallow for westerners – it was so strange and exotic that it seemed more like pure invention than a true narrative.
This is the basis of the opera, in which we meet Marco – the man who made the journey – and his memories of it, personified in Polo. We all know that a journey and our recollections of it are not identical. However, this is only one aspect of the opera, for any journey is both a physical movement in time and space and at the same time a spiritual journey into one’s soul, brought about by encountering the unknown. Dante’s Divine Comedy (1319) is an example of the latter: a spiritual journey in the company of a long-dead poet, Virgil. Marco Polo does not travel alone either – he is accompanied by both Dante and the imaginative storyteller Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter. They travel with him from the darkness of Venice over sea, desert and the towering heights of the Himalayas to the radiant emperor Kublai Khan, who meets them at the Great Wall of China.
In Indonesian shadow theatre – as in Ancient Greece – shadows represent the deceased, and they do so in this opera too. We meet William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud and John Cage on the journey into the soul, but also Chuang Zi, the philosopher/composer from the fourth century BC, who appears as a butterfly, since he once dreamed he was one. We also meet Gustav Mahler drinking with Li Po – the Chinese eighth century poet known for his numerous drinking songs – while we hear Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in the background. East and West meet in the shadows of the underworld.
Tan Dun has created a musical and stage style in which oriental and occidental merge remarkably harmonically. On this journey, in which the point is not departure and arrival but rather the process of travelling through a variety of landscapes and cultures, we encounter in words, actions and music fragments of what is currently referred to as global culture. For Tan Dun has followed the trail of the Renaissance quest to recreate Greek tragedy. In the sixteenth century Greek tragedy was regarded as a successful example of synthesis of classical art, dance, music and poetry, but since they had little direct knowledge of it, they created their own synthesis of Renaissance culture. The result was the new genre of opera. Tan Dun has taken steps in the same direction, based on his own journey from the Hunan province to New York.
To do so he has combined several oriental genres: Indonesian shadow theatre (previously mentioned), traditional late eighteenth century Chinese theatre (known as Peking Opera) with its mixture of music, singing, mime, dancing and acrobatics, and classical Japanese Kabuki dance-drama from the seventeenth century. He has succeeded in making this work alongside music from the western tradition: Gregorian plainchant, Italianate opera, Mahler quotes and modernistic tunes, and without it sounding eclectic. The whole point is that although one would expect these different traditions to produce cacophony together in fact meld with such technical brilliance that the opera Marco Polo represents a journey of our dreams both out into the unknown beyond and inwards into the equally unknown depths inside.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English text: Roger Martin