MONKEY is one of those beloved folktales every Asian child grows up with. It’s supposed to be a Buddhist morality tale but as it’s been handed down over the ages, it’s become a great adventure quest saga. I’ve always wanted to write about dear MONKEY, he of the “monkey mind”, the ever restless, ever-changing, ever curious quicksilver mind. Perhaps I feel some affinity for his plight as all around try to tame him and teach him the virtue of stillness.
When my son, Pirate, and I founded our casual gaming company, SqueePlay, I reread all four volumes of MONKEY in an attempt to make a video game from it. I gave up on that endeavor but decided to reimagine this centuries-old tale as an opera. After all, MONKEY is at its very core the stuff of opera – an anti-hero (indeed, a simian one) succeeding against all odds in achieving salvation. The challenge was how to distill four volumes of theology, adventures, and tests into one hundred minutes of libretto and music. The answer was not to even try.
Instead, I used the “idea” of MONKEY – its thesis that all of us are sinners who may be redeemed if we are willing to undertake the journey towards salvation – to explore the conflicts between religious devotion and pragmatism, pacifism and extremism. It seems each century is defined by some form of religious mania – the Crusades in the 12th century, the Inquisition of the 15th century, Aryan purity and anti-Communism in the 20th century . . . I am particularly struck by our century’s religious nemesis – radical Islamism.
There is a picture of religious cruelty that sticks in my mind: A row of black-clad jihadists emerging out of fog by a lake, a row of orange-clad Christians kneeling before them. The jihadists wield swords and axes. We know that each captive Christian was beheaded by that lake. My body just seizes up every time I think of that image; my heart flies out to the victims’ families. I wonder whether they continue to keep faith, that is if they ever had faith in the first place. My thoughts coalesce around this image. So it’s the first image that dear MONKEY sees on his Journey to the West.