Director Chen Shizheng found the hero of his latest opera while groping in the darkness.

Director Chen Shizheng found the hero of his latest opera while groping in the darkness. It was the height of the Cultural Revolution in China and when shots rang out in the streets, Chen, then an 8-year-old boy, would often hide under his bed. It was there that he accidentally discovered a lacquer jewelry box stashed beneath the floorboards.

Inside were banned classic Ming and Qing dynasty novels. The pages of one, "Journey to the West," and its hero Monkey, transported Chen away from the harsh realities of Mao's China.

"It was the most inspiring thing as a kid because Monkey was fearless and fighting, defending his own rights in this incredible magical world," Chen said. "It gave me a lot of strength. It gave my mind somewhere to go."

Today (June 28), he realizes his lifelong dream of turning the book into an opera -- with the help of ex-Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, co-creators of the cartoon band Gorillaz.

The Mandarin-language "Monkey: Journey to the West," which premieres at the Manchester International Festival before traveling to Paris and Berlin, is a unique mix of animation, martial arts and video game elements.

It tells the story of a Monkey king who gatecrashes heaven hoping he can become immortal. The gods imprison him in a mountain for 500 years as punishment. He is offered a chance to redeem himself by protecting a young monk who must travel west from China to India in search of sacred Buddhist scrolls.

Chen was searching for a composer while directing Monteverdi's Orfeo for the English National Opera, when one of the ENO's directors, Alex Poots -- now head of the Manchester International Festival -- gave Chen a Gorillaz DVD.

"I loved the animation," Chen said. "I loved the combination of the score and the visual images and how it integrated so well."

He met Albarn and Hewlett and discovered they also shared a childhood fondness of the story. The Gorillaz duo knew Monkey from the Japanese cult TV series that was broadcast in Britain in the early 1980s.

Chen wanted the opera to reflect 21st-century China. So he took Albarn and Hewlett to China, showing them not only villages that hadn't changed in 1,000 years but also rapidly expanding cities. Albarn sampled snippets of sound and Hewlett sketched.

"It's a proper opera and it's been really hard work but it's not meant to be some highbrow thing," Albarn said in a statement. "It has been a spiritual journey for everyone involved ... And if it works, it could be absolutely extraordinary."

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