‘Semele’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Opera reconstructs 17-ton ancient Chinese temple inside BAM

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Talk about a weighty performance!

An opera coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 4 will feature the Canadian Opera Company, sumo wrestlers, and an inflatable puppet. But the star of the show may be a 17-ton, 450-year-old Chinese ancestral temple. The formidable structure will be reconstructed inside the Fort Greene arts institution, where it will serve as the centerpiece for an ambitious adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s opera “Semele.” But while it may steal the show, it won’t get in the way, a Brooklyn Academy of Music representative said.

“The fine natural acoustics of the Howard Gilman Opera House are not hindered by the temple’s size,” said production supervisor Paul Bartlett. “The temple serves as a wonderful backdrop to Handel’s ‘Semele.’ ”

The show is being directed by Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan, who has combined eastern and western elements to re-imagine the Greco-Roman myth about a mortal woman who tries to sleep her way to divinity. Zhang, who divides his time between China and New York, found the Ming Dynasty temple in a small town west of Shanghai. It will remain on stage for the entirety of the performance, while lighting effects, rain, and a temple bell that at one point bursts into flames all transform its appearance.

The structure takes three 12-hour days to assemble, and must be transported in four separate tractor trailers, Bartlett said. A lot of work must take place behind the scenes to make sure nothing goes amiss on stage, he said.

“Logistic is the whole game,” said Bartlett. “The order of installation is the most important job. Making sure that nothing gets left out or work falls behind is the trick.”

Bartlett said he wasn’t sure if the temple was the largest set in the organization’s history, but it was probably up there.

“BAM has had a long history, so I cannot give a definitive answer,” he said. “But 17 tons of temple is a whole lot of temple.”

“Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music [30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100,]. March 4, March 6, and March 10 at 7:30pm, March 8 at 3 pm. $35–$350.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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