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Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group
Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Follow the Legendary Silk Road in Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage

A new form of performance is coming to the Kennedy Center this month: the national concert drama. DC theatergoers are invited to experience Chinese culture with Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage on January 25-27, featuring the 80-piece China National Traditional Orchestra and 24 performers onstage.

The 100-plus group will perform writer, director and composer Jiang Ying’s interpretation of Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey across China via the Silk Road on a pilgrimage to India. The production is part of China Arts and Entertainment Group’s cultural exchange program, Image China, and relies heavily on instrumentalists to carry the concert drama. The musicians play characters, breaking the boundaries between the stage and the music, with many roles designed to be interchangeable to help guide and promote the development of the story.

“[Our] comprehensive and dynamic interpretation has never been seen before by American audiences,” Jiang says.

The production’s intricate design and use of multimedia technology “makes the play more colorful than the traditional drama,” she continues, “which will definitely give the audience a more perfect artistic experience that goes straight to the ear.”

Jiang’s production captures the hardships and dangers Xuanzang experienced during his 17-year expedition from Chang’an to Tianzhu while on his quest to discover religious texts that had not yet come from India to China. Ultimately, he obtained the scriptures from the West.

“I aim to convey a positive energy through this drama – a spirit of perseverance and obstinacy for ideals and beliefs,” Jiang says.

Though the drama focuses on Xuanzang’s Buddhist experiences, it also explores the wisdom and compassion of Buddhism and promotes positive energy. The overarching theme in the story is the spirit of progress – Xuanzang is not afraid of the difficulties that come with developing firm ideals and beliefs.

“It is not only of historical significance but also of practical significance,” Jiang says, reinforcing the importance of progress in the production. “This is the common spiritual wealth and strength of all mankind.”

Jiang’s large-scale, multimedia experience offers a lens into China’s music culture with unique wind instrumentation – the zither, Chinese harp, dulcimer and eagle flute are featured, among others – to help highlight amicable cultural exchange in Chinese history along the legendary Silk Road.

“National instrumental music is the soul of this kind of drama,” she says. “My intention was to introduce Chinese instruments that were just imported from the Silk Road in a [historical] series. It’s because of the combined strength of each component that this concert drama is perfectly presented.”

Catch a performance of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, January 26 at 1:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., or Sunday, January 27 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets start at $70. Learn more at www.kennedy-center.org.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Scott Suchman
Photo: Scott Suchman

WNO Honors Bernstein with Candide

Add the Washington National Opera to the list of those celebrating what would have been the year of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, as it presents the composer’s notable take on Voltaire’s biting satire, Candide through May 26 at the Kennedy Center.

Featuring classic tunes such as “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” this version of Candide marries a triple threat of theater, dance and opera. Bernstein wrote a piece with so many different layers, many compare it to his personal love letter to Europe.

Eric Sean Fogel is the associate director for the show, and has also served as choreographer on the project since 2015. He says the best way to describe the performance is to talk about how not to describe it.

“We start right off the bat by not categorizing the production; we don’t say it’s an opera, operetta or a musical, or a dance piece for that matter,” he says. “It’s kind of everything, and that’s how Bernstein and his collaborators wrote the piece. It’s a world onto its own.”

However, Fogel shares, what audiences can expect to see are 12 massive production numbers and a journeying piece of a young man trying to figure out who he is by exploring the world and searching for both his love and his reason.

This current production is the fifth remount of the show. It all began when Fogel would meet with Francesca Zambello the director, Jennifer Moeller the costume designer and Jim Noone the set designer, once a month for a year to slowly go through and talk through the piece to figure out how to tell the story of 13 locations effectively on stage.

“It does have a cinematic, huge sweepy feel to it that takes a lot of time to plan out scenically and costume- and design-wise,” Fogel says.  “After a year, we settled on this base look of a French warehouse that can be transformed by moving trunks and platforms into any scenario we would like — from boats in Venice to a Bavarian battlefield.”

Throughout the show, there’s also a mish-mash of different period costume pieces for the ensemble, so they could quickly put on a jacket or necklace and represent a different character in a different county.

“We decided the most facile the design could be, the more brevity we could have in the storytelling,” Fogel says. “This is a story that’s already incredibly dense, so you want to keep it moving along and not weigh it down with additional design element. It’s almost like we’re doing the stage version of ‘It’s a Small World’ because it’s such a massive journeying piece and you just want to get different flavors of all the different cultures you go through.”

The show is comprised of a company of 34 singers, actors and dancers and unlike most opera productions, everyone sings, acts and dances like a true Broadway ensemble.

DC’s own Denyce Graves plays the character of “Old Lady.” Although she’s never done a Bernstein production before this, Graves does have a history with him as when she was 14, she made a PSA commercial with the legendary composer.

“I didn’t really know who he was at the time, but of course, over the years I learned he is one of our greatest musical giants,” she says. “This being the centennial, when I was offered the role, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. I had known the music of course, but had never seen the work and was curious, interested and excited.”

Regardless of whether people are fans of opera or theater, Graves feels people are really going to enjoy this show.

“It has a lot of the melodies that people have heard throughout the years—everyone has heard ‘Glitter and Be Gay’— and this production is so spectacular,” she says. “It’s so detailed, so funny and I the audience will have a wonderful time.

The production also features Alek Shrader as Candide, Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde and Wynn Harmon as Pangloss, Voltaire.

Fogel believes that when audiences leave, they will contemplate how to make the world a better place.

“It’s such a beautiful message of someone finding their purpose,” he said. “It’s poignant, has a lot of heart and offers great humanity throughout.”

For information and tickets to the show, click here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org