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Chung Ling Soo

It isn’t difficult to see why Raymond Yiu and Lee Warren chose the story of Chung Ling Soo for operatic adaptation.


First, take the story of one of the world’s most famous magicians, dying on stage - killed by his most dangerous, but also most astonishing and perplexing, trick. How could such a skilled artist, renowned for his meticulous preparation and attention to detail, be scuppered by an illusion he had been performing for so many years? Was it a tragedy - or who might have wanted to see the end of Chung Ling Soo? …


Then, take this story, and discover that the magician in question, the ‘Marvelous and Original Chinese Conjuror’, was in fact a New Yorker named William Robinson. Beneath the black wig, white face paint and Chinese robes (though, anything vaguely oriental-looking would do), was a man who found fame not only producing outstanding illusions on stage, but fooling the world into thinking that he was someone he was not. William Robinson was the prodigious illusion-designer chosen by the 19th century’s greatest magicians - Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar - as their right-hand man, but it wasn’t until he left his old reputation behind that he could truly succeed on his own …


And then consider that William Robinson - making an astonishing career out of deception on-stage - was a serial liar and philanderer off-stage. Married young to a woman called Bessie Smith, his first child was born not to his wife, but to a servant of the Robinson household. Eventually leaving two children behind in New York, William took off touring across the US with another woman - Olive “Dot” Path - who was referred to as ‘Mrs Robinson’ (but who he never married) and who was an integral part of his act. Later touring in England, William had an affair and a child with Louise Blatchford, leaving Dot distraught, their relationship in tatters, however the show continued - with Dot now merely an employee. William’s whole life was his magic - Bessie, Dot, and Louise (and likely many other women) could never compete for his attention, affection, and sympathy.


Opera has seen its fair share of astonishing and complicated characters - but the true story of Chung Ling Soo / William Robinson is a quite amazing one even in such esteemed company. Not necessarily an easy man to love - indeed, by all accounts William was a highly prickly character, self-obsessed and self-serving - one cannot but admire his dedication to giving audiences the most astounding show they would ever see. Across his long career, William toured the world playing to hundreds of thousands of audiences who - but for a few hours - would be transported into a magical arena where people could fly, objects could appear out of mid-air, and a man could stave off the gunfire of a battalion with just a silver plate for protection. It was one hundred years ago this year, however, that this final illusion led to the permanent retirement of the ‘Original Chinese Conjuror’.