Truth is stranger than fiction.
The Crosby Theater
07/30/2022 - and August 3, 12, 18, 24, 2022
Huang Ruo: M. Butterfly (World Premiere)
Kangmin Justin Kim (Song Liling), Mark Stone (René Gallimard), Hongni Wu (Comrade Chin, Shu Fung), Kevin Burdette (Manuel Toulon, Judge), Joshua Dennis (Marc), Lucy Evans (Agent 1), Andrew Turner (Agent 2)
Santa Fe Opera Chorus, Susanne Sheston (Chorus Mistress), Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Carolyn Kuan (Conductor)
James Robinson (Stage Director), Allen Moyer (Scenic Designer), James Schuette (Costume Designer), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Designer), Greg Emetaz (Projection Designer), Seán Curran (Choreographer), Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet (Fight and Intimacy Directors)
K.J. Kim (© Curtis Brown for SFO)
When playwright David Henry Wang’s M. Butterfly (“M.” for “Monsieur”) premiered at the National Theater in Washington D.C. in 1988, it was an enormous success. Soon thereafter, the play opened on Broadway for 777 performances, winning a Tony Award for Best Play, and ending finalist of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other prizes and accolades. A brilliant movie, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone, was released in 1993. Subsequently, the play was revived in New York in 2017.
The opera, composed by Huang Ruo, had its world premiere last night in Santa Fe. Based on real facts, the plot narrates the story of Bernard Boursicot, a diplomat based at the French Embassy in Beijing in the 1960s. René Gallimard, his name in the opera, falls in love with a Chinese Opera soprano while attending a concert featuring excerpts of Madama Butterfly. What Boursicot/Gallimard did not know is that female roles at the Peking Opera were held by men. What he also ignores is that soprano Shi Pei Pu (Song Liling in the opera) is acting as a secret agent for the Chinese revolutionary government. Ultimately, this unthinkable twenty‑year liaison will take the diplomat to a French court of justice. That is all we shall divulge about this fascinating, extraordinary true story. As Mark Twain put it: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
Despite a relatively straightforward storyline, the implications are profound, as they mirror Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. However, David Henry Wang goes way beyond the cultural conflict between the West and the East, between the arrogant Westerner male and the submissive Asian woman. The themes of homosexuality, of gender identity, on a background of espionage during the Chinese revolution, are at the center of this opera. Is Gallimard willfully blind? How could he not have known Song Liling’s gender after a twenty‑year relationship? On this last point, it seems that he offers the beginning of an answer when Song Liling undresses to confront him with reality: “I liked the lie...” Is Gallimard gay? This is often implicit, and the lines between “gay" and “straight” are unsettlingly blurry. James Robinson’s direction effectively reflects the subliminal level of the story, while tension is clearly marked to reach a climatic and powerful ending progressively. The elegant set is designed to move efficiently the action forward and allows a fast transition between the numerous scenes.
The two principals are compelling in their rendition of the above complexities. Mark Stone is a touching, nuanced Gallimard with a well‑projected baritone. Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling is nothing shy of spectacular. The rest of the cast equally rises to the challenges of their parts. The chorus, prepared by Susanne Sheston, offers, as always, a rich sound.
Whereas the singing scores are pretty linear, the orchestral writing is opulent, boisterous at times, and delicately refined at others, under the vigorous conducting of Carolyn Kuan. It contains several quotes from Puccini’s opera, some are easily recognizable, and others are intricately sewn into the music.
David Henry Wang’s play was performed in China in 2009, but it was in a two-hundred-seat theater and in front of expatriates. Whether Huang Ruo’s opera will be performed in China anytime soon is doubtful, to say the least, especially when one remembers that John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987) is still waiting to be shown in the Middle Empire. Here, in Santa Fe, M. Butterfly, a powerful and complex work, was enthusiastically received.
Santa Fe Opera