by David Henry Hwang Mr. Butterfly was the first piece composer Huang Ruo saw in America after arriving here in 1996 to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “I went there because I knew Puccini’s opera, he says, and because I knew there was an Asian actor in it. I remember it was very shocking, and it struck me deeply.
Twenty-six years later — and after three previous collaborations — their lyrical version of Mr. Butterfly will become Santa Fe Opera’s 18th world premiere when it opens on Saturday, July 30.
Its plot is based on a real event. In 1986, a French diplomat and his romantic partner, a Chinese opera singer, were convicted of spying for China. Their trial received international media coverage when it was revealed that for more than 20 years the diplomat had mistakenly believed the singer, who specializes in female roles, to be a woman.
Hwang heard about the reports at a cocktail party in Los Angeles and was convinced it held stage potential. About a year later, he had the “Aha!” moment that provided the entry point to the piece. As he drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, he wondered, “What did the diplomat think he was getting with this Chinese actress?”
The answer came clearly. “He probably thought he had found his own Madame Butterfly.” Hwang refracted the racism, misogyny and imperialism found in Giacomo Puccini’s opera through the framework of the diplomat/singer relationship in his Mr. Butterfly, which premiered on Broadway in 1988 to great acclaim. A revival in 2017 gave the playwright the opportunity to update some of the original text and recalibrate other aspects to reflect current viewpoints.
The opera libretto has two aspects in particular that come from the renaissance. “The first is to look at gender fluidity in the context of how we understand it today as opposed to 35 years ago,” says Hwang. “The original piece revolves a lot on a ‘gotcha’ revelation: you thought he was a woman and now he’s a man!”
Here, Hwang is referring to the moment that composer Huang Ruo found most shocking, the onstage anatomical confirmation of the opera singer’s masculinity. It’s still part of the opera, says the playwright, and a powerful part, but it also creates a more nuanced approach, seeing the relationship as part of a range of possibilities that lovers negotiate.
“The second is to elevate the Chinese point of view to be more equal to the Western focus of the play,” Hwang explains. “A theatrical manifestation of this equality is that we added a scene from a Chinese opera, butterfly lover, which also deals with gender confusion. And it’s an opera that Shi Pei Pu, the real person, was famous for performing.
A question that arises whenever an artistically successful play is turned into an opera is “Why?” If it worked so well in its original form, what more can opera-tization bring? For Huang Ruo, the answer lies at the heart of the art form.
“Opera is such a wonderful medium for love and death, in that order,” he says, “and so is Mr. Butterfly, with its intimate history. The strength of the opera is to be able to dig even deeper into the psychological and emotional states of the characters.
The creative team is also quick to point out another important aspect of the play and the opera. Both can be understood and enjoyed without prior knowledge of Puccini’s opera, since the text provides the necessary information. However, for those who know Lady Butterflythere will be “Easter Eggs” along the way for you to discover.
One occurs at the very beginning of the opera, where the composer takes the short theme that begins Puccini’s opera and reverses it — reversing the melody — for its opening, changing a note to give it an Asian quality. . Both operas also have a buzzing chorus, which in Mr. Butterfly represents the memories of the diplomat.
The playwright and composer each have a Santa Fe credit to date. For Hwang, it was the text of Osvaldo Golijov Ainadamar, staged in 2005, which he remembers as “an exciting and exhilarating experience”. Composer, director Peter Sellars and soprano Dawn Upshaw are all committed to making changes throughout the rehearsal process, which is unusual in opera.
“On opening night, I didn’t know what his last line would be,” Hwang recalled, “because I had given Osvaldo several possibilities and I didn’t know which one he had landed on.” Critics have landed on terms like “hauntingly beautiful” (The Washington Post) to describe the production, which sold out its six-performance run.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Huang Ruo’s first opera, had its American premiere here in 2014. There was a lot of drama behind the scenes. The tenor who played the title role dropped out two weeks after the start of rehearsals. Joseph Dennis, then an apprentice, entered the part, which was sung entirely in Mandarin. The New York Times described the latter’s experience as “a trial by fire, which he passed admirably” and said that the former “blends classical Western idioms with Chinese traditions in a distinctive style that is characterized by a strong dramatic bent” .
Mr. Butterfly’s librettist and composer first worked together on a cover of Hwang’s first piece, The dance and the railroad, which was staged in 2013. Huang Ruo scored the production. (Coincidentally, one of the two characters in the play is a Chinese opera performer.) Their next collaboration was An American soldier, a one-act opera about the suicide of a Chinese-American soldier in the U.S. Army who had been harassed and beaten by his comrades. It premiered in a staging by Washington National Opera in 2014.
“I am perhaps the only artistic director to have told a composer that his opera should be longer.” Opera Theater of St. Louis’ James Robinson laughs at the memory, but he was right. The Missouri company has ordered an unabridged version of An American soldierwhich was widely acclaimed when it premiered in 2018.
Robinson is staging Mr Butterfly, and he also led Dr. Sun Yat-Sen here, he therefore has first-hand experience with three of Huang Ruo’s five operas. “I think he’s grown so much as a creator of dramatic works,” Robinson says. “He understands the rhythm of theater and just keeps getting better. English is not his first language, but he really defines the English language beautifully. He has a very particular way of writing for the voice.
Robinson is widely admired in the opera world for contributing to the development and staging of contemporary works and premieres, including that of Terence Blanchard. Fire locked in my boneswhich moved from St. Louis to the Metropolitan Opera in 2021, and its Champion, who makes the same trip in 2023. He is uniquely positioned to work with living composers, with an undergraduate degree in music composition and graduate studies with Dominick Argento, an underperforming American composer. Robinson’s interest in opera production grew out of the opening of the Santa Fe Opera House in 1987, fueled in particular by Tatiana Troyanos’ performance in Handel’s play. Ariodante; his first job as a director was with the company’s apprenticeship program a few years later.
After its last dress rehearsal on Thursday July 28, Mr. Butterfly will be in the hands of conductor Carolyn Kuan and the opera’s management team. Kuan is a frequent performer of Huang Ruo’s music, including Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. The New York Times praises his conducting here as “a confident and urgent reading of the score”.
While rehearsing a new opera, she says, “My job is to figure out how to support the composer, number one, but also how to support the director. Kuan is also very attentive to the needs of singers. Like Robinson, she has extensive training in a related discipline, having seriously studied voice for around 12 years.
During the performances, it is not only a question of being united but also of cohesion. “I’m the glue that holds everything together,” she says. “When there are conflicting needs, it’s up to the conductor to best adapt to the present moment for the performers.”
Kuan recognizes that there is a different kind of pressure around a big premiere. “I always want to defend the composer, no matter what I perform,” she says, “but Beethoven’s symphonies will always be there, no matter how I conduct them. Huang Ruo is a dear friend and an artist I admire, so it’s very different.
And, as she points out, “Beethoven can’t jump out of the grave and come hunt me down.”