M. Butterfly – the Opera

Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling, Mark Stone as Rene Gallimard. All photos by Curtis Brown.

In the bizarre world of “fact is stranger than fiction,” few stories seem more unlikely than a two-decade long affair in which the man was unaware that the “woman” was in fact a man.  David Henry Hwang penned a multi award-winning play about this relationship, “M. Butterfly,” which premiered in 1988.  The play is based on true-life events, starting in the 1960s, of a French diplomat serving in China who fell in love with a Chinese opera singer who portrayed females on stage.  The diplomat assumed (we assume) that the artist was female.  Yet, at the time, all Chinese opera performers were male, so the big question is whether the diplomat really knew that his lover was male.

Since Hwang’s play centers on this opera singer, and since its title and some themes clearly pay tribute to Puccini, the extension of the play into an opera seemed almost inevitable.   Hwang had already written opera librettos, including “Dream of the Red Chamber,” also set in China.  Thus, taking the responsibility for the lyrics in “M. Butterfly” seemed natural, as did drafting Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo to write the music.  The opera premieres with a highly rewarding many-layered, many-faceted production commissioned by Santa Fe Opera.

Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling, Mark Stone as René Gallimard

Action begins during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Life for Chinese is poor, austere, regimented, and threatening, as any violation could lead to being sent for re-education.  Intimacy with foreign devils, who are few, is taboo.  Expatriate life is also harsh given the lack of goods and services, and foreigner partiers in the opera even complain that Chinese food is better back home.

Against this backdrop, René Gallimard (a fictionalized name, as is that of his lover), serves as an accountant with the French foreign service.  Performed ably by Mark Stone, he is a drab, detail-oriented bureaucrat who believes that Asians submit to Europeans as being superior, which perhaps prompts his ability to make overtures to Song Liling after seeing her perform “Madama Butterfly.”  His fraternization with locals, work reliability, and lack of leadership qualities are noticed by the Ambassador, who eventually promotes him to Vice Consul, in a capacity where he can collect local intelligence.

Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling, Hongni Wu as Comrade Chin, and dancers.

Although consorting with the enemy is discouraged, Liling hopes that an association with a foreigner might open up new horizons for her (as Liling lives as a woman, her gender identity pronouns will be used).  Our first exposure to Liling is as she sings Puccini’s “Un bel di vedremo,” and Kangmin Justin Kim gives a stellar rendering of this beautiful aria.  Countertenors can seem harsh and forced, but Kim’s sensual vocal style has the warmth of a top-flight mezzosoprano which shows ideally in this opera.  Kim’s Liling will be a conniving mistress, but for understandable reasons.  Not only is China a harsh place to live, but homosexuality is illegal, and her very public presence makes her particularly vulnerable.

Hwang and Ruo’s flirtation with Puccini’s namesake follows many paths.  Arias and incidental music are borrowed, and this opera’s affecting “Humming Chorus” and other elements are pastiches of the same in “Madama Butterfly.”  But the driving force is the thematic likeness.  Cross-culturalism is confronted, and Pinkerton’s racist mistreatment of Cio-Cio San from the earlier opera is revisited.  Yet, in some regards, the primary deception is reversed, with the Asian misleading the Westerner.  In addition to the grounding in Puccini, the sexual confusion interlaces with butterfly themes recurrent in Chinese mythology, providing an intellectually rich and dramatically fulfilling narrative with a satisfying musical backdrop.

“M. Butterfly” is composed in the modern operatic style without the lush melodies and memorable arias of old.  Yet, it is fitting.  Western mode dominates Ruo’s score, but Asian motifs are also introduced.  Conventional western instruments comprise the orchestra, but when needed, Ruo extracts Asian ornamentation through use of 5-tone scales.

Mark Stone as René Gallimard, Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling.

The storyline goes well beyond the romance, as what made their relationship newsworthy was charges of espionage.  These two aspects balance well.  Scenes shift between Beijing and Paris; between private and public; and between the mid ’60s and early ’80s.  The visual depictions in Allen Moyer’s impressive and fast-moving scenic design utilize differing color combinations, moving sets, projections of newspaper stories; stark and lush looks; and settings as varied as formal parties and interrogations.  Director James Robinson’s overall vision is also enhanced by Seán Curran’s choreography in an Asian acrobatic style and Christopher Akerlind’s contrasting lighting.

Ultimately, the story concerns a broad and somewhat menacing intellectual issue that builds on the question of whether René really believes that Liling is a woman.  In the greater arena, it concerns denial of uncomfortable reality in favor of self-serving fantasy.  Cults, religions, and whole societies thrive on rejecting facts that don’t support their preferred world view. Unfortunately, these delusions result in poor decisions that not only destroy self, but promote bias and social decline. 

Conversations about race and gender identity, particularly among the socially liberal community, have transformed considerably since 1964 to the extent that some may ask the relevance of this story.  Not only does that argument miss the mark on artistic and socio-historic grounds (e.g., why attend “Tristan and Isolde,” “La Traviata,” and many more?), but it neglects the fact that cultural wars are very much with us.  Transgenders are still murdered for the simple reason of their being, and state legislatures actively pass egregiously discriminatory gender and gender-identity based laws.  Further, there are many countries that are far more benighted than ours.

Chorus and lead principals.

As a footnote, many performance enthusiasts probably assume, as I did, that the “M.” in “M. Butterfly” is simply a shortening of “Madama” in the title’s attempt to retain a connection to the Puccini opera.  However, fittingly in French, M. is the abbreviation for monsieur.

“M. Butterfly,” a world premiere, with libretto by David Henry Hwang and music by Huang Ruo is produced by Santa Fe Opera and plays at Santa Fe Opera House, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM through August 24, 2022.

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