EVEN THE MOST OPERA-APATHETIC have heard of Madama Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini’s tale of a thwarted romance between a young Japanese woman and an American naval officer. Bits from its beloved score are familiar to the most casual fans of the genre. When writing M. Butterfly for Broadway in the late 1980s, however, American playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang created something entirely new, with a script that challenges the original story’s Western-dominated narrative by pushing Asian voices to the forefront.
The opera M. Butterfly 懮珋, which sees its world premiere this summer at the Santa Fe Opera, with Hwang in collaboration with composer Huang Ruo, promises to up the ante on the kind of juicy romance and unapologetic agita that marks all the best operas. For M. Butterfly director James Robinson, who served as an usher at SFO decades before his current role, working closely with Huang Ruo and Hwang was a creative dream come true. “The collaborative element of M. Butterfly is what I’m most proud of,” Robinson says. “Being in the company of world-class artists like David and Huang has been a great joy.”
It might not be enough to call M. Butterfly a “deconstruction” of Puccini’s original, as this operatic vision contains a nesting-doll plot that challenges expectations for viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with the classic Butterfly tale. Together with the expert production design, direction, performances, and atmosphere that make a night at the Santa Fe Opera a singular musical experience, M. Butterfly might be the hottest ticket in New Mexico this summer.
Beyond voices, gestures, and costumes, the look of each scene has been meticulously considered. Every opera production requires its own unique prop sets, with opera houses across the globe often lending or selling sets among themselves. Because of M. Butterfly’s status as a world premiere, the production staff started from scratch, sourcing furniture, decor, and everything else by using the opera’s two main settings—1980s France and midcentury China—as an inspirational springboard.
“We were laser-focused on making sure each and every part of the M. Butterfly set was accurate to its era,” explains properties director Eileen Garcia, who leads behind-the-scenes teams of carpenters, artisans, and designers at the Santa Fe Opera. One challenge, for instance, of replicating an antique Chinese chaise lounge, required members of the design team to learn new software in order to mimic intricate carved-wood elements. On top of perfecting the visuals, artisans had to construct the piece with durability in mind, building it with a steel skeleton as opposed to a traditional wood one. “All told,” Garcia says, “the chaise lounge alone probably required ten different staff members to create.”
“MADAME BUTTERFLY” WAS first published in 1898, in Century Magazine, as a short story. Its author, Philadel-phia lawyer John Luther Long, was inspired by tales of the Far East shared with him by his sister, a Methodist missionary. He adored Japanese culture and writing fiction; when he died, in 1927, his obituary noted, in his own words, that he wanted to be remembered as “a sentimentalist, and a feminist and proud of it.”
When Giacomo Puccini saw a theatrical interpretation of the story in London and turned it into an opera in 1904, he could never have dreamed up the true tale of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, which unfolded in China 60 years after Madama Butterfly’s Milan debut.
Boursicot was just 20 years old when he moved to China in 1964. A sexually naive French embassy accountant, he was attending a Christmas party when he spotted Shi, then 26, who played leading-lady roles at the Peking Opera House. (Historically, opera used male singers to play female roles; the practice had largely died out by then.)
Though dressed as a man when they met, Shi told Boursicot that he had been born female but was forced by his family to live as a man. They began a romance that spanned two decades, with Shi even going so far as to tell Boursicot he had fathered their child. Shi bought a Uighur boy from northwestern China and raised him as their son.
From there, incredibly, the plot only thickened. During their relationship, Boursicot shared French state secrets with Shi, which Shi then passed to the Chinese government. They were both found guilty of espionage against the French government. Worldwide news of the case caught Hwang’s attention and led to the creation of M. Butterfly.
The play opened on Broadway in 1988, won a Tony, and has been performed over 700 times in more than a dozen countries, with actors like Anthony Hopkins, John Lithgow, and BD Wong cast in leading roles.
Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere is in line with an important mandate for the company, which has presented operas every summer since 1957 (minus a pandemic hiatus in 2020). “We have been increasingly focused on diversity,” explains general director Robert K. Meya, “both with our behind-the-scenes staff and our performers. We are also working hard to expand our offerings of contemporary productions with appealing, accessible storylines.”
For Robinson, who has directed five productions at the Santa Fe Opera, a big part of M. Butterfly’s magic is in its then-prescient exploration of sexual fluidity. “When David wrote this play in the 1980s,” says Robinson, “it’s safe to say he couldn’t have predicted all of the conversations we’re now having about gender.”
Hwang has said M. Butterfly’s audience needs to live in a state of “self-delusion,” suspending their disbelief to allow such a seemingly preposterous story to unfold. For the score, Hwang tapped Chinese composer Huang Ruo. Both men were keen to spotlight a Chinese perspective, a mission that manifests itself not only in the story, but in the music itself.
Puccini’s opening score, for instance, comprises a peppily distinct da-da-da-da-DAH. Though he preserved the notes, Huang Ruo flipped their order, with the reversed DAH-da-da-da-da sequence advising us to expect the unexpected, even before any words are sung.
BUZZ FOR M. BUTTERFLY has highlighted its Korean American countertenor, Kangmin Justin Kim.
In opera, the countertenor is something of a unicorn. Often confused as a man singing falsetto, a countertenor must be a master of widely ranging octaves and equally comfortable with baritone and soprano compasses. The team must have been elated when Kim agreed to play Song Liling, the character based on Shi Pei Pu. Kim’s voice is striking, even for those unfamiliar with the special versatility of the countertenor. In the space of an aria, he can switch from brooding and dark to tender and piercing.
At 33, Kim has already played an impressive number of parts, making his leading-role debut in Francesco Cavalli’s Elena in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In his early twenties, Kim went viral on YouTube by channeling his drag persona, Kimchilia Bartoli, to deliver a jaw-dropping version of a Vivaldi aria, as performed by legendary diva Cecilia Bartoli. In a floor-length red gown, cascading black curls framing a flawlessly made-up face, Kim delivered a virtuosic performance. When he later met Bartoli in person, the Italian diva rushed toward him, crying, “Kimchilia! Mia sorella!” (“Kimchilia! My sister!”)
For Meya, the Santa Fe Opera’s open-air theater beautifully complements the drama onstage. “It really allows the elements to be part of the visitor’s experience,” he says. “You hear wind and see the sun setting; sometimes we have storms rolling in and lightning flashes during a performance. Once you see a performance at Santa Fe Opera, it’s hard to see opera anywhere else.”
Properties director Garcia, a native New Mexican who spent years in Washington, D.C., and Denver, says the Santa Fe Opera suits
fans from all corners of the world. “Opera is for everyone,” she says, “but our opera is unique in how welcoming it feels. Come in formal wear or come in cowboy boots.”
As for what happened to the real-life stars of M. Butterfly, after his conviction, Shi remained in Paris, where he played roles in small-scale operas until his death, in 2009. In prison, Boursicot slit his own throat but survived. He later said he felt betrayed by Shi.
Despite all the deception and pain, Boursicot insisted his love was real, once telling a journalist, “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story.” Given the smoke and mirrors behind his multilayered affair, it’s safe to expect an enchanting interpretation from M. Butterfly.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
The world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Huang Ruo’s M. Butterfly 懮珋 promises over-the-top drama, even by opera standards. Originally slated to debut in 2020, M. Butterfly is the fifth and final production of this summer’s 65th festival season. M. Butterfly is staged by director James Robinson and the same creative team that prepared the Santa Fe Opera’s much-lauded premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 2014. Robert K. Meya, who took the helm as the opera’s fourth general director in 2018, offers a few tips for maximum enjoyment.
Soak in the view: “We are all really mindful of how stunning the environment is here at the opera,” Meya says. “In many ways, the experience of visiting is just as much about the natural surroundings as it is about the onstage show.”
Expand your horizons: “M. Butterfly is Santa Fe Opera’s eighteenth world premiere, and it’s a glimpse of the fresh new perspectives we are excited to include more of on stage. This is a modern story told in an engaging, approachable way that is going to excite young and old operagoers alike.”
Dine alfresco before the curtain: After a two-year hiatus, pre-opera tailgate dinners are back. This longstanding SFO tradition can be enjoyed with your own recipes and table-scapes, brought from home and set up in the parking lot or picnic areas, or the SFO’s Masterpiece Cuisine can cater your meal. See menus and info at santafeopera.org.
See a star rise: Korean American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim is on the path to megastardom. “Not only is Justin a phenomenal singer,” says Meya, “but he’s also a truly amazing actor. He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Watch for new talent: The Santa Fe Opera is a pioneer in apprenticing singers. This year, 47 opera-star hopefuls from all over the world are making their mark in five productions.