Following several years of nurturing, Richard Mills’ chamber opera, The Butterfly Lovers, has metamorphosed from concept to a fully-fledged operatic experience of theatrical splendour. Emphatically an artistic collaboration between Mills, Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, and Ivan Heng, Founding Artistic Director of Wild Rice, one of Singapore’s leading theatre companies, any qualms regarding cultural appropriation are irrelevant. The shadow that for many people casts a pall over Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Turandot has no place in this fusion of creative talents.
One of China’s Four Great Folktales, the story of the Butterfly Lovers is as central to Chinese culture as the story of Romeo and Juliet is to Western Culture – the latter, by an uncanny piece of synchronicity, being performed by The Australian Ballet in the State Theatre next door. That both stories deal with the conflict between love and duty – between personal fulfillment and the expectations of a patriarchal society in which women are commodities, simply reinforces our common humanity, regardless of cultural norms. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Iphis, recently performed by Lyric Opera of Melbourne is an even closer parallel to this version of The Butterfly Lovers. Based on a story from classical mythology, Iphis also suffers complications of same sex attraction by being compelled to disguise herself as a boy. Unlike the tragic ending of the star-crossed lovers, supernatural forces intervene to ensure a less devastating outcome for the other two couples.
According to the program notes, Singaporean poet and playwright, Joel Tan’s libretto for The Butterfly Lovers reflects traditional formalities of Chinese opera in concise, contemporary English. The stated aim of making the text “singable” was apparently achieved in that the diction was generally excellent. Comprehensive surtitles, however, were a welcome addition, especially in ensembles and orchestral climaxes that were made even more forceful by the amplification of all performers – singers and instrumentalists alike. In the relatively small venue of the Playhouse the voices seemed strong enough to carry easily without mics, but amplification did provide a sense of the story being elevated and somehow larger than life. The storm scenes with videoed lightning flashes certainly sounded even more cataclysmic because of it.
Permeating Mills’ score are traditional elements of Chinese music such as the subliminal pentatonic references, folk-like interludes and the inclusion of the pipa (Chinese lute) and dizi (Chinese flutes). Within the ensemble of 13 players the Chinese instruments, harp and percussion are prominent, with strings, clarinets and keyboards playing important roles. Mills’ musical language is a synthesis of Chinese and Western idioms. It tends to be abstract and atonal, favouring more conversational, fragmented exchanges rather than long lyrical passages that could be considered arias.
The three principal singers, baritone Haotian Qi (Father/Academy Master), soprano Cathy-Di Zhang (Zhu Yingtai) and counter-tenor Meili Li (Liang Shanbo) were all excellent. Cathy-Di Zhang’s vibrant voice, delicate beauty and expressive dramatic skills made her a most poignant figure as she sought permission from her father to study at the Academy dressed as a young man, only to find herself drawn to her fellow scholar – an attraction she is warned by the Master to resist, before being forced to return home to an arranged marriage. Her voice both contrasted and blended with Meili Li’s countertenor remarkably well, sometimes taking on his individual colour. Victorian Opera dedicated this premiere season of the opera to Max Riebel, who was to have the role of Liang Shanbo before his life was cut tragically short by cancer this year. A musical highlight came towards the end of the opera as Cathy-Di Zhang’s voice soared above a background chorus in a despairing counterpoint.
Eight notable artists from the company comprised the Chorus, with some singing solo parts. In the tenor role of the self-important chosen husband, Michael Dimovski’s acting was spirited and he negotiated the melismatic passages with commendable vocal agility and pleasing tone. The Chorus plays a very active role in the opera, beginning proceedings as a chorus of Divinity Spirits who set the scene for a story of thwarted desire. Whether performing carefully choreographed stylised sequences, arranging the simple red chairs to form a moving bridge for the lovers or assuming new roles with quick costume changes, their actions were precise and smoothly coordinated.
A simple basic set was cleverly transformed into rapidly altering scenes by the visual creativity and technical expertise of Multimedia/Set Designers Ivan Heng and Brian Tan. Storms, changes of season and various settings were projected onto the backdrop and a number of moving panels. While Chinese red was a predominant colour for many scenes, the silver featured in the final scene in which the lovers’ souls are united made a strikingly ethereal contrast. Max Tan’s costumes almost stole the show. Ranging from a stylish modern twist on traditional garb for the initial chorus scene, through sleek restraint for the students’ costumes to the magnificent opulence of the main characters’ finery, they culminated in Zhu Yingtai’s stunning wedding robes.
In this collaborative re-imagining of The Butterfly Lovers, what began with a meeting of creative minds in 2015 can now be chalked up as one of Victorian Opera’s most significant achievements.
Photo credit: Charlie Kinross
Heather Leviston reviewed “The Butterfly Lovers”, composed by Richard Mills and presented by Victorian Opera and Wild Rice at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse on October 12, 2022.