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BWW Review: SONGS FROM THE SANTA FE OPERA at Home Computer Screens

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BWW Review: SONGS FROM THE SANTA FE OPERA at Home Computer Screens

On August l, 2020, Songs from the Santa Fe Opera presented Episode. 5: M. Butterfly. The opera by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang, was to have been premiered on this date. We heard an usher playing the musical call to the non-existent audience. We saw a beautifully marked butterfly gliding through the empty open air theater and heard the "Humming Chorus" from Ruo's opera pleasingly sung by Apprentices: Stephen Carroll, Hayan Kim, Seiyoung Kim, Nicholas Martorano, Nate Mattingly, Jana McIntyre, Elliott Paige, Heather Petrie, Elizabeth Picker, Rachel Policar, and Jarrett Porter. John Arida accompanied at the piano and Susanne Sheston conducted. While they were singing, watchers online saw a tour of the grounds as the sun set behind the Jemez Mountains.

Tenor Joshua Dennis told of his personal experiences learning about opera and described the increasingly more intense love for opera that brought him to Santa Fe where he met his wife. He has worked in 15 Santa Fe productions and was to have sung a leading role in the new opera. Dramaturg Cori Ellison told us more about the libretto. The story of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, while entwined with that of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, is basically about the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking Opera singer. The singer, thought by all who knew her to be female, was actually male. Premiering on Broadway in 1988, the play won that year's Tony Award for Best Play.

Ruo not only keeps the allusions to the Puccini opera, he even quotes it in a few places. His Peking Opera singer, Shi Pei Pu, is a counter tenor. Ruo combines Eastern and Western music, playing with the tensions between them. Santa Fe Opera's former general director, Charles MacKay, who presented the North American premiere of Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 2014, characterized the style of Ruo's music as "an original striking voice, a kind of Chinese Bel Canto." From Paris, counter tenor Kangmin Justin Kim and pianist Robert Tweten performed a beautifully lyric rendition of "Awoke as a Butterfly" from M. Butterfly.

In a video from The Asia Society, baritone Michael J. Hawk, pianist John Arida, and conductor Susanne Sheston gave a resounding performance of another delightful aria from M. Butterfly, "The Perfect Woman." I think this aria may have a life of its own. Santa Fe Opera Artistic Director Alexander Neef moderated a discussion with composer Ruo and librettist Hwang on M. Butterfly and the future of opera. They spoke of the importance of expanding operatic subject matter so as to reach a broader segment of the population. Santa Fe Opera has given 16 world premieres. M. Butterfly was to be its 17th. I hope we will get to see the whole work there some day. Meanwhile, we can enjoy these excerpts as Santa Fe Opera streams them online.

Photo by Benedetto Cristofani for Santa Fe Opera


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From This Author Maria Nockin