Njo Kong Kie unpacks a contemplative yet whimsical Picnic in the Cemetery

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Picnic in the Cemetery; photo by Luisa Ferreira

The timing of Njo Kong Kie’s exquisite Picnic in the Cemetery seems like uncanny prescience. The concert theatre opened at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre just 3 days after the Yonge Street Tragedy that shook Toronto to its core. It was a brutal reminder of the fragile preciousness of life and the irrevocable end brought by death. These truths that sleep beneath the eddies of daily mundanity were brought – gasping – to the surface, and intensified by uncertainty, worry, inconvenience and ceaseless updates. Incidentally, the closing of Yonge Street forced drivers to reconfigure their usual routes, and innumerable drivers detoured through nearby York Cemetery to get home. A practical reminder of life going on, even when it has changed forever.

After such an unexpected confrontation with mortality, a picnic in a cemetery seems oddly àpropos. And the atmospheric Picnic in the Cemetery — where Mr Njo’s evocative compositions calm the chaos of thoughts and channel the tide of emotions – might be just the balm that Toronto collectively needs. The music, written for piano, violin and cello, is gripping. The entire production runs a taut 75 minutes and is an altogether surprising theatre experience, which delightfully begins in the theatre lobby (though I won’t spoil how). The theatre’s interior has been transformed through an evocative set by Fung Kwok Kee Gabriel that is aesthetic and functional. Visual projections, a creative-movement component and literary snippets all combine to add food for thought and engage all of the senses. Just how the production leverages these disparate elements into a coherent whole cannot really be explained – it must be experienced.

Mr Njo is a prolific composer and musician. Dance and opera companies around the world and across Canada have presented his works. The chamber opera Mr Shi and His Lover, which he co-created with Macau playwright Wong Teng Chi, was an immediate hit with critics and audiences when it premiered at SummerWorks in 2016 before going on to play at the Tarragon Theatre and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this season. Picnic in the Cemetery originated as an album, and this concert theatre version introduces the Macau-based Folga Gaang Project in their Toronto debut. The musical compositions arose from of Mr Njo’s ruminations while picnicking at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. And while this source inspiration might suggest a melancholy macabre, many of the pieces evoke the joys of (and prompt meditations on) living. Like any good picnic, this concert theatre is an artful composition born of careful planning and thoughtful preparation. And like the various courses in a picnic, each piece is unique and should be savoured for its individual flavour, but their juxtaposition contributes greatly to the richness of the whole. And moreso than any picnic I’ve been on, the entire experience is sublime.

Just after Picnic at the Cemetery opened, we chatted with Mr Njo  about this serene, stirring and almost uncategorizable production.

SesayArts: I’ve read how Picnic in the Cemetery has been inspired by your experiences picnicking and enjoying the tranquility of Mount Pleasant Cemetery…. What have been some remarkable or surprising moments you’ve witnessed during your picnics? And have any of these made their way into a song in the show?

Njo Kong Kie; photo by Ao Ieong Weng Fong

N.K.K.: The music was actually created before the title came along. In the early 2000s, I was touring with the contemporary dance company La La La Human Steps, as pianist and music director of their show Amelia. I was working with a violinist and a cellist for that show, and I would write these short little pieces to amuse ourselves while on the road. Around the same time, I also discovered Mount Pleasant Cemetery and made frequent visits there. So when I decided to make an album of this collection of music, the two just went together. Therefore, the experiences of the picnics in the cemetery influenced these compositions in a larger sense than in any specific moment.

There is a fair amount of melancholy in the works, but also a lot of joy and whimsy. That parallels with my observation of life inside a cemetery. A place like Mount Pleasant is frequented by a lot of people, runners, joggers, picnickers, but obviously mourners and people who have gone before us. It is a place of mysteries. One wonders about the lives of the people buried six feet under, whose names you see on the tombstones, and how their lives relate to ours… one naturally falls into a contemplative state in these visits.

I once heard a most beautiful “concert” there – a solitary bagpiper, standing amongst the graves, playing such soulful music. I have never heard bagpipe sounding so mournful.

SesayArts: I realize that Picnic in the Cemetery began as a recording…What was the process to develop it from an aural form to a visual, multisensory live production?

N.K.K.: My work has always existed in the context of dance, opera and theatre, so when it comes time to put this album on stage, I reached out to my friends from these communities. When we did the first edition of the work back in 2013 for the Macau Arts Festival, I knew I wanted to present a concert in a way that the audience would not be expecting.

Taking the cue from the fanciful and whimsical title, we set about weaving in elements of movement, video, space and lighting design to envelope the music. But we also know that we want these extra elements to enhance the audience’s experience of the music rather than distract from it. At various times, the work has been described as a staged concert, a concert plus experience, a music theatre and concert theatre. For sure a conventional concert it is not.

SesayArts: This question is personally motivated: Over the recent months, I have confronted an unwelcome number of expected, untimely goodbyes. Also, I live in Willowdale, where we have just had to confront sudden death. Needless to say, my community, family and I have been preoccupied with the fleetingness of life and how to cope with sudden loss. Is there something in Picnic in the Cemetery that might offer solace and comfort to people like us, or something to contemplate, beyond the aesthetic? 

Njo Kong Kie in Picnic in the Cemetery; photo by Luisa Ferreira

N.K.K.: A trip to the cemetery, whether a real one or an imagined one such as ours, naturally invites contemplation about life, and by that, about death. So I think the audience, particularly those like yourself, who have experienced goodbyes recently, will have a lot more reflections watching the show than others who have not. Each one of us, of course, has our own unique journey in coping with the challenge of goodbyes. In the case of unexpected partings, the difficulty is even greater as we also have to make sense of the randomness and fleetingness of life.

In the design of the show, each piece of music is paired with text that reflects on certain aspects of living, as in the end, a cemetery is really a place for the living to make sense of life’s greatest mystery, as much as it is a place to honour the dead. I feel that while this show is not about imparting any wisdom in helping people cope with losses, I hope it does provide some solace through its gentle soothing sound and imagery.

SesayArts: Picnic in the Cemetery is the first production of your 2-year Berkeley Street Residency…any hint about what you are working on for your next production?

N.K.K.: I will be working to set music to the poetry of Chinese poet Xu Lizhi who wrote about his life making electronic parts on an assembly line in a factory of Shenzhen, China. When I first encountered Xu’s poems, I was immediately struck by the acute observations of his day to day and the insightful reflection of his life. His powerful and gut-wrenching words speak to the experiences of migrant workers everywhere whose existence is often forgotten. The world premier of this work [I swallowed a moon made of iron] will be in May of 2019 at Canadian Stage.

SesayArts: What would you like people to know about you, outside of your music (and your enjoyment of picnics in the cemetery)?

That I enjoy playing ping pong. If anyone fancies playing ping pong, look me up.

SesayArts: The final word is yours. What would you like to add?

N.K.K.: Picnic in the Cemetery is a show that invites you to relax for 75 minutes and let your mind wander. Let your adventurous spirit loose and enjoy our offerings. The music, written for violin, cello and piano, is a combination of various styles. Like a good picnic spread, variety is the key.  At times nostalgic, melancholic; at times highly rhythmic and high octane, the music takes the audience through 19th century romanticism, 20th century minimalism, to 21st century new classical music that combined the esthetic from outside the classical tradition. Major influences include Glass, Reich, Piazzola, Pärt, Schubert, Faure, Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, though they don’t all manifest themselves in equal portion all the time, of course.

Njo Kong Kie; photo by Ao Ieong Weng Fong

News You Can Use

What: Picnic in the Cemetery, created by Njo Kong Kie; A Music Picnic & Point View Art production in partnership with Canadian Stage
Featuring Njo Kong Kie, musical director, piano; Hong Iat U, violin; Nicholas Yee, cello; Iris Chan Chi Ian, performer

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: On stage until May 6, 2018

Where: Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto ON

Info and Tickets: CanadianStage.com or 416.368.3110

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Posted in Opera and Musical Theatre and tagged , , , .