Making of The Year of the Cello

Interview with the Co-Creators of The Year of the Cello

Marjorie and Kong Kie laugh together, against a black brick backdrop surrounded by carp fish and a gramophone swimming in the air.

Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie first met as cohorts of Tapestry Opera‘s Composer-Librettist Laboratory (LIBLAB) program. Since then, the two artists have been close friends (Marjorie is an artist of Hong Kong background, and Kong Kie lived in Macau for many years). But this is the first time they are collaborating on a project together. 

We interviewed the duo about the upcoming world premiere of The Year of the Cello.

How did the two of you end up working together on this play?

Marjorie: I’ve worked with composers as a librettist, and I’ve worked as director / playwright / dramaturge of numerous plays — but I wanted to explore ways to work with the music directly within the text. The Year of the Cello didn’t find its voice until Kong Kie came into the collaboration, because music is so integral to its shape and form. I knew I could trust that he would be open to developing a collective creation together.

Kong Kie: Because Marjorie and I have both created music theatre/operatic work, we always imagined our collaboration being an opera. But instead, our first collaboration is a play, but music is very much integrated into the dramaturgy and creation of the piece. Marjorie often refers to this work as a sound-led piece. I find that proposition intriguing because music would still be situated in the centre of a theatrical context even as the form sits outside the realm of opera and music theatre. The themes of the story really resonated with me as well, one being about the power of music. And as a musician, of course I find that satisfying to explore. 

This piece is set in early last century Hong Kong. Can you speak more about that time?

Marjorie:  The play is roughly set in the ‘30s in Hong Kong, crafted from my time there but also shaped by the stories from my father about his childhood. The heart of the story has always been about the relationship and bond of these two queer women and the juxaposition of living in that time period. 

As well, I think we still have the opportunity to tell the story of a Hong Kong that no longer exists and may be lost to history. What’s our cultural responsibility? What does it mean to tell a story from the past and hold onto it? Maybe, it’s a way to conserve that history. I know that for me, the history of Hong Kong is unique since it has a combined colonial and ethnically Chinese past. 

Kong Kie: Having lived and worked in Macau for many years, I have a tremendous affinity for Hong Kong culture. The two cities have a shared history though they were also in some ways always competing with one another. Marjorie and my shared cultural heritage meant we can hint at subjects without having to contextualize everything, and have more nuanced conversations/negotiations around historical events and themes. Marjorie has a good history of writing about our culture, and we know we can collaborate with a shared level of investment on the work.

A cellist is playing ambushed by a flora of orchids. The image is black and white, like an old photo, but surreal.
The play also hints at multiple instances of plagues that hit 20th century Hong Kong. Can you speak more about this?

Marjorie: Last century Hong Kong experienced quite a few instances of bubonic plagues, starting in the 1890s in Sheung Wan, an area of Hong Kong my sister lived in for 8 years. The wave we imagine that Wen recounts in the play was in 1929. The plagues also came with a complex handling that involved some brutal tactics, and mistrust of the populace of the colonial forces and Western medicine. It is entirely fascinating history but slightly outside the play. Wen and myself as the playwright acknowledge this. 

However, even I was surprised to see how Wen described her time in her pandemic, as I begin revisiting the script during the pandemic. The words of a faraway time resonated with me, and although I was tempted to change this section of the text to remove these resonances, I left the similarities in. Because it did give me pause to consider  a we continue to navigate the current global pandemic. 

What is the emotional impact of loss we collectively experienced? Did we acknowledge the hurt or heal from it? Or did we try to carry on, and allow it to scab over, and perhaps fester, with trauma just waiting to reveal itself later? 

The Year of the Cello is also perhaps thematically cautionary — revealing the impact of events when our emotions and experiences go unchecked and trauma unresolved.

Can you talk a bit about the space and the production design?

Model of the stage design, with production Designer Echo Zhou’s pet gecko modelling inside.

Marjorie: It will be intimate, as there are 35 seats available per show. It will take place in the newly renovated Bob Nasmith Innovation Backspace in a unique configuration. 

This piece is set in a space that exists outside of time. There is a ghostly-ness and timelessness to the setting. I’m really excited for the audience to experience how Production Designer Echo Zhou will transform the space.

Where the character of the Cellists is, we have been calling the Celloverse, and where Wen is primarily, Wen World

The work is very unique, especially in the poetic storytelling, and large presence of the music. What should audiences expect?

Kong Kie: I think this piece has a potential for theatre and music audiences to meet. We have two cellists who will be performing the role of The Cellist on alternating days. Audiences may be familiar with Bryan Holt from his work in new music as member of VC2 cello ensemble, as well as his presence at operatic productions with Tapestry Opera or the Canadian Opera Company. We met Brendan Rogers from A Perfect Bowl of Pho in the Toronto Fringe. They both bring different energy to the role in addition to their own unique style of playing. 

Marjorie: It is hard to describe, so I am calling it a “Play with Cello”. The music is integrated in a way that serves a different dramatic functionality. It is new to work this way for Kong Kie and myself, so we are excited to be able to offer this to audiences.  

Can you talk about the digital format of The Year of the Cello?
a gramophone sinks into the water amongst the carp fishes

Marjorie: The show’s in-person and audio-only digital formats are blind-friendly, with in-person performances being presented in a relaxed setting. The digital format of this show is an audio experience created with binaural sound; the recording provides a 360-degree listening experience of the play.

Kong Kie: We were trying to offer a more substantial experience to people who are listening to the digital format. In the process, we discovered that complicated design is not always the answer.

We aimed for a very clean and clear auditory experience through binaural recording. The technique is not the “main character” but more a good tool for access and ensuring we provide the piece a technical justice. Adding the Binaural recording was a way to add a fullness to the digital format the same way we do with in-person shows.

Kong Kie:  Having written for solo violin in Volcano’s production of Infinity by Hannah Moscovitch, I find the work that started there continues here, only this time for solo cello. As we situate music in quite a different way though, there are new considerations. Our creation process also allowed Marjorie and myself and our creative collaborators/consultants to work on the text and music/sound dramaturgy together, so that is also satisfying. 

In the play, the audience will hear both historical repertoire (selections of the iconic music of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites and early Chinese popular songs) as well as newly composed materials. Music is used to highlight the emotions of the characters, to frame the story in a particular time and place, to draw attention to and to respond to the text. It is also used as the cellist’s speech. Music is commonly referred to as a language. In this play with cello, the Cellist literally speaks with music. So finding and creating music that conveys what they want to say is part of the fun and the challenge of my work here. I also enjoyed working with sounds cello can make beyond musical notes in the sound design. That is fun as well.

Marjorie: Performer Rong Fu is a familiar face to theatre audiences as well as on TV in the new Star Trek.  We’re so lucky to have her. As this is a solo show, we needed an actor who has the comfort level and the emotional range to carry the themes of the show. She is an actor who is very open and demonstrates a nuanced emotionality.

rong is an east asian woman with short curly hair that drapes just below her shoulder. She is standing sideways, wearing a white floral dress, turning towards the camera

Rong Fu | Playing the role of Wen

Anything you'd like to add?

Marjorie: In the end, this is a love story between 3 people, or 3 people and a cello?.

Or perhaps the story is about 2 people and a cello in the end. It speaks to the power of music, and the complexities of love and loss. Its aesthetic is different, but I hope audiences will come along for the ride. 

The Year of the Cello

by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie | A Theatre Passe Muraille and Music Picnic Co-Production

Wen and her friend Li-An are forever changed by their encounter with the Cellist, whose music unlocks all that was left unspoken. Co-created by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie, The Year of the Cello is told poetically, alongside live cello music culminating in a lament for loves lost, and a Hong Kong that once was.