M. Butterfly librettist David Henry Hwang first encountered the true and then-sensational story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese opera singer and spy Shi Pei Pu at a cocktail party. Boursicot and Shi met in China in the 1960s and carried on a 20-year affair before Boursicot learned Shi was actually a spy and a man. Both were eventually convicted for espionage in the 1980s.
Hwang thought—correctly—the story would make a good play. M.Butterfly—which fictionalized the true events to tell the story of Diplomat René Gallimard and soprano Song Liling—became a 1988 Tony Award winner, a Pultizer Prize finalist, spent several years on Broadway, including a 2017 revival, and has been performed in several dozen countries. Director David Cronenberg adapted the play into a film in 1993.
Composer Huang Ruo first saw Hwang’s play when he was a student at Oberlin College and, spotting a poster for M.Butterfly, thought perhaps it was a theatrical version of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. He attended and “walked out a different man,” Ruo told an overflow audience last weekend at a pre-performance discussion between himself and Hwang with dramaturg Cori Ellison.
Hwang hadn’t actually heard Puccini’s opera when he first thought of the story’s connection to Madame Butterfly. Rather, he’d been pondering what Boursicot “thought he’d found” in Shi. “And the answer came to me, ‘Oh, he probably thought he’d found his version of Madame Butterfly,” which Hwang knew as “a cultural stereotype of service, submissive Asian woman.”
He began listening to the opera and found, “the libretto had everything that I needed to write the play.”
But the story, Hwang notes in a video introduction to the opera “really works best when there is abundant theatricality and an ability for the audience to suspend disbelief” and fall into the diplomat’s world of fantasy and self-delusion. For that, he says, “I always felt on some level opera would be the right form.”
That opera, which had its world premiere in Santa Fe last weekend, adds to Hwang’s play, layering references not just from Puccini’s opera, but also from the classic Chinese story and opera Butterfly Lovers. That tale also explores issues of gender and identity: A young girl disguises herself as male in order to attend school, where she falls in love with a classmate. Their love is doomed and only by dying and becoming butterflies can they be together. Song’s third act aria, “Awoke as a Butterfly,” is based on text written by Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, in which he dreamt he was a butterfly and awoke wondering if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man (in short).
Those rich thematic layers meet their musical counterpart in Ruo’s score, which marries elements of Western and Eastern musical styles into a driving polyphonic sound that captures the disjunctive tension inherent in Gallimard and Song’s relationship within the larger cultural tensions of the era in which the story unfolds. Conductor Carolyn Kuan, whose SFO debut was Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 2014—commandingly led the orchestra through the opera’s many propulsive moments, as well as its nuanced ones.
The opera is Ruo’s second world premiere at SFO—he’s the only composer to have two world premieres here, the first was Dr. Sun Yat-sen—and the SFO and US mainstage premiere for countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling. As the elusive Song, Kim’s performance was simply breathtaking. The countertenor voice works perfectly in this role to convey the character’s gender fluidity, but the beauty of Kim’s mezzo-soprano range also allows the audience to enter Gallimard’s delusion as well. Kim’s use of vibrato to convey Song’s tremulous moments—her fluttering—were highly effective. Both Hwang and Ruo have spoken of the importance to them of authentically casting an Asian opera singer in the role, as well as the scarcity of Asian countertenors. In turn, Ruo said, Song’s role was in many ways written specifically for Kim, who has now set a high bar for future Song Lilings.
As Gallimard, baritone Mark Stone fully embodied the striving and ultimately humiliated diplomat. Stone’s final aria, when he faces himself and transforms into M.Butterfly himself, was an incredibly moving performance on opening night.
Well, there are no bad performances here under the leadership of Director James Robinson. Mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, in her SFO debut, effectively portrays Comrade Chin, the People’s Liberation Army envoy who recruits Song. SFO favorite bass Kevin Burdette ably performs the parts of both Gallimard’s boss, Manuel Toulon, and one of the judges in Gallimard’s espionage trial. The choral work, via Choral Master Susanne Sheston, is particularly effective, such as in the cocktail/gossip/singing/laughing scenes that open Acts 1 and 2.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks across time and space, conveyed through Greg Emetaz’s evocative projections. One particularly poignant moment occurs when Gallimard and Song are alone together in the night, surrounded by stars, truly intimate even in the face of their shared deceits.
The world has changed in many ways in the years since both the true events at the heart of the story and Hwang’s original play. One key way is a radical shift by most people in they view and understand gender. The opera incorporates that shift to present the issue of gender in a more contemporary intersectional manner and re-centers the story to more fully present Song’s perspective alongside Gallimard’s.
As Hwang noted in his comments prior to opening night, there is no Crying Game “gotcha” moment in M.Butterfly (there is nudity). Rather, he said, the story is now “about the way it is that lovers kind of create their own world, and they create a reality that works for them.”
Ultimately, the opera transcends its source material, finding universal and operatic themes in a very specific story that still grapples with the issues of gender and racial stereotyping. In his remarks, Ruo described the goal as attempting to see the world “through a drop of water” and in so doing “to tell a human story whether about whether one could see another person as truly who that person is.”
8 pm, Aug, 3, 12, 18, 24
$54-$375, subject to change; $15 standing room
First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.