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Tea: A Mirror of Soul, by composer Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), which had its Canadian premiere in Vancouver on Saturday, offers a thrillingly unusual sonic and visual experience; an East-West fusion of musical traditions and natural sounds. From the orchestra pit, audiences hear not only the rarely used bass flute and nipple gongs in various pitches, but also the voices of the musicians – hissing, humming, even putting down their instruments at times to wave sheets of paper. This story of love and betrayal is told in three acts – each with its own theme. Here’s a look, shot during rehearsal

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Act I, Water: Percussionists Yuri Yamashita, Chihiro Shibayama and Haruka Fujii stand at three stations suspended above the stage, each equipped with a large bowl of tap water, which they proceed to slap, drip and, as the score instructs, “collect the water in two hands” and “violently throw collected water into water basin.” The bowls are miked, so a small bouncy ball rubbing up against a Beijing Opera gong creates an ominous wail, while water draining out of a strainer becomes a trickling waterfall, underscoring the lush orchestra music. Fujii has been with the show since its workshop in Shanghai and world premiere in Tokyo in 2002; the others joined in Santa Fe, for the North American premiere in 2007. The years of experience are valuable; unlike the musicians in the orchestra, they work without having the score in front of them.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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Act II, Paper: Onstage, the percussionists wave nine-metre-high screens of paper and hit them with mallets, while members of the chorus flap and then crumple up sheets of paper, creating a soundscape that is reminiscent of a thunderstorm. (They’re using hardy stock, but there have been some casualties in the form of ripped sheets.) Meanwhile, in the pit, the musicians keep pieces of paper on their laps, which they wave at prescribed times. (Originally they used their music scores, but after numerous requests for scotch tape, a sharp-thinking librarian raided the recycling box for scrap paper and the score-waving practice was abandoned by some.) The unorthodox aural cacophony of this act is particularly evocative during the love-making scene.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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Act III, Ceramics & Stones: The paper of the previous act, symbolic of a soft and fragile love, is replaced by the hardness of stones and ceramics: battle. Yamashita and Shibayama sit on the floor at stage left and right, using mallets to play randomly pitched ceramic pots picked up at a Shanghai market (on standby are replacement pots, in case of breakage, purchased at a Vancouver Home Depot; Shibayama playing several in the store to find the right one). Fujii meanwhile plays an udu – an African percussion instrument – that belongs to Tan Dun himself. And the chorus is tasked with banging rocks in rhythm – a feat the singers were struggling with at rehearsal early this week. While the singers make a rare foray into playing instruments (in this case, stones), the members of the orchestra get the rare chance to vocalize in this opera, with k-k-k-k and t-t-t-t sounds emerging from the pit during the tragedy’s final act.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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