Squonk Opera Goes to China | Blogh

Squonk Opera Goes to China

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The Qingdao International Beer Festival bills itself as Asia’s largest Oktoberfest celebration. It draws millions of visitors for what appears to be an insane, month-long carnival of beer, stage spectacles, beer, live music, beer, robots and beer.

Lady Pneumatica, from Squonk Opera's "Pneumatica" - PHOTO COURTESY OF SQUONK OPERA
  • Photo courtesy of Squonk Opera
  • Lady Pneumatica, from Squonk Opera's "Pneumatica"
We don’t know whether that’s the perfect venue for Pittsburgh’s Squonk Opera, but it’s got to be close.

The long-running, award-winning art-rock band with a fondness for massive props and surreal theatrics makes its debut in China this month at the Qingdao fest, with some 60 performances of its 2014 production Pneumatica. It’s a rare, perhaps unprecedented, visit to China by such a well-known Pittsburgh-based troupe, and starting next week, CP will bring you dispatches from the Squonkers themselves — ideally, video clips (depending on what they can manage to share from halfway around the world).

The five Squonk musicians, including co-founders Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn, shipped out Aug. 1 and are scheduled to give their first performance on Saturday. Then it’ll be three half-hour shows daily through Aug. 27, with just three days off in the middle, said Dempsey, interviewed by phone this past Monday.

Dempsey says Squonk secured the gig via a Chinese booking agency that found the group at a booking conference in New York City this past January.

It’s hardly Squonk’s first time on the road: The artistically adventuresome yet still somehow highly accessible troupe, which this year marks its 25th anniversary, tours extensively in the U.S., hitting seven states in the past year alone. It has played Broadway, and has squonked overseas several times, including twice in South Korea (most recently in 2008) and also in Germany and Belgium. It's done Scotland's famed Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There was even an infamous, nationally broadcast 2011 stint on America's Got Talent.

But Qingdao International Beer Festival is something else yet again. Taking place in Qingdao, an eastern-China seaport city of nine million that’s also a brewing capital (home to Tsingtao), it draws four million visitors (according to this 2015 article in England’s The Telegraph). And if this promo video is to be believed, it’s a shoulder-to-shoulder, Vegas-on-’roids bacchanal.

Pneumatica should be well-matched. The air-themed, air-powered outdoor show, which premiered at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, is a burst of Squonk’s potent music (including drums, bass, guitar, O’Hearn’s keyboards and O’Hearn’s electronic bagpipes) and inflatable sculptures including (in Squonk’s words), the “40-foot high Lady Pneumatica, who incorporates a wind turbine on her head. She blossoms with sails, breathing steam and raising her inflated arms to the sky.” And her lungs are a playable accordion.

Yup, sounds like it should fit right in.

Dempsey told CP that while at Qingdao, Squonk will be aided by two Chinese technical staffers whom the troupe will have a day to train and rehearse.

And then it's on to face what's surely Squonk's biggest audience ever.

“It’s going to be an adventure,” says Dempsey.

Stay tuned.

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