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Q&A: Damon Albarn on his Monkey opera

By Sinead Garvan
Newsbeat reporter

Damon Albarn is set to return to London with his first ever opera, Monkey: Journey To The West. He talks to Newsbeat his love for the original cult TV show in the 1970s, going global and his future plans.

Damon Albarn
Blur singer Damon Albarn compared Monkey with Lord Of Rings

You're taking Monkey to the London 02 Arena after it recently appeared at the Royal Opera House. Do you think it will appeal to a different audience?

Yeah. The reason why we decided to take the plunge and put it in a very popular place was that it definitely works for many different tastes. It's not elitist and it's not done down at all.

It's just something that is really colourful, exciting and funny and the music is pretty psychedelic.

It's got some sort of relationship with Lord Of The Rings in the sense that it's a fantasy story and there's lots of strange characters, flying monkeys, carnivorous water spirits and evil demons.

It's got that good and evil but it's not based on the Christian mythology and moral systems.

It's an Asian perspective and it's a far more ancient story than any we have. It's great entertainment so that's why it's there.

You have been involved in this for years as well haven't you?

That's true, I have since I was a kid. When I was 12 it came onto the screen in Britain and it was very soon the most popular kids TV show.

It was more popular than Dr Who and everyone my age remembers it really fondly.

In a way we've just brought that back.

It is a massive production isn't it?

It's huge. Every time we do it we have to fly in a jumbo jet of Chinese performers, musicians, physiotherapists and translaters.

It's far more ambitious than anything I have done with Blur or Gorillaz.

My style of writing tunes is in there as well. It's not me in any way performing and it's not like Gorillaz or Blur but I'm in there and you can definitely hear my tunes.

I believe you went to China a few times and had to listen to a different style of music. Is that true?

I did because it's really difficult for a westerner to feel the Chinese pentatonic system.

It always seems to stop short of where we traditionally go with melody and stuff.

In a way I had to really limit myself for there to be any kind of authenticity. I really enjoy doing that and that was the challenge for me, how can I essentially a songwriter become a composer and work in a Chinese system?

That was for me why I did it, so I could stretch myself, and it does work.

Even though it doesn't sound western it doesn't sound too Chinese and distant and exotic. It's new music, it's a new style.

Do a lot of the actors and actresses speak English?

Yeah. It's been fascinating watching them and it's a very young cast as well. That's why it's got such incredible energy.

They're really getting a chance to see the world and their English is improving and it's just brilliant to see the way they are maturing through this experience.

How does it compare with the Royal Opera House version?

We have changed the sound of it to fit a big tented arena now.

It's much more electronic and closer to the record that I've produced.

It's still got a lot of orchestral instruments in there and it hasn't changed too much but it's a bit fresher sounding and rhythmically it is really strong.

It has more of the Gorillaz element in now than it would have had in the Royal Opera House.

What's like being involved in a huge production like this?

I enjoy it. It's not something I want to be doing all the time but it's brilliant working with huge groups.

Essentially when you go on tour with bands like Blur around the world you have about 120 people involved anyway.

The nice thing about this is there is no focus on just one person. It is much more democratic in a sense. Everyone is working but there isn't a star so to speak and sometimes it's refreshing to work like that.

Do you want it to go global?

I suppose it would be nice if it keeps on going because I just think it's a great story and this is a way of keeping that story alive. So yeah I do.

What's next for Africa Express?

That is never going to stop. That is something that will hopefully carry on way beyond our lifetime.

Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn said he hopes Monkey goes global
I hope I have started something that will just become more and more part of culture and the exchange between cultures.

I'm not sure what is next. We don't really plan things. We don't have an end game.

We're trying to get people comfortable with each other and once that happens they see each other in a different light.

Hopefully this is a positive thing because that is what we need right now.

Monkey: Journey To The West will be staged at 02 Arena on 12 November.

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