Arts Opera Review Singapore

★★★☆☆ Review: The Butterfly Lovers by Wild Rice and Victorian Opera

The classic Chinese tragedy of love that never quite takes flight.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Ivan Heng)6
Libretto (Joel Tan)6
Composition (Richard Mills)6
Performance (Cathy-Di Zhang, Austin Haynes, Haotian Qi, Michael Dimovski, Adrian Poon, Zachary Dominguez, Cindy Honanta, Zoe Hong Yee Huay, Alice Cahya Putri, David Tao Chen Ming, Jonathan Charles Tay, Teng Xiang Ting)7
Live Music (Conducted by Richard Mills)7
Set Design (Ivan Heng and Brian Gothong Tan)6
Multimedia Design (Brian Gothong Tan)6
Costumes/Hair/Makeup (Max Tan/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)7
Lighting Design (Philip Lethlean)6
Sound Design (Joel Manuel Fernandez)6
Total63/100 (63%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Western Opera has almost always championed Western stories. So what happens when it instead decides to adapt an Eastern classic? For Singaporean theatre company Wild Rice and Australian opera company Victorian Opera, it sounds like the perfect opportunity to collaborate, with their co-created opera The Butterfly Lovers.

After making its world premiere in Australia in 2022, The Butterfly Lovers recently made its way to Singapore’s Victoria Theatre for its Asian premiere. Directed by Ivan Heng, with original music composed by Richard Mills and a libretto by Joel Tan, The Butterfly Lovers adapts the classic Chinese love story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, the first time it appears as an original English-language opera.

Dubbed China’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the story follow Zhu as she goes against her father’s wishes, and cross-dresses as a man to gain an education. En route to the school, she meets Liang, who decides to travel together with her, not realising she’s a woman. In their time at school, both develop a strong affinity for each other, only for Zhu to be suddenly called home to fulfil her filial duties and marry a wealthy suitor. Though Liang chases after her and discovers her true identity, Zhu’s dedication to her duties causes him to die of a broken heart. When Zhu finds Liang’s tomb, she throws herself in to join him, and their spirits emerge as butterflies, never to be separated again.

In Wild Rice and Victorian Opera’s adaptation, unlike the original story where Liang is deemed too bookish to realise Zhu’s femininity, Joel Tan’s libretto queers the narrative, with Austin Haynes playing a more effeminate Liang, and champions Zhu as a ‘sworn brother’, the affection towards her present from the moment they lock eyes on each other. On the other hand, Cathy-Di Zhang is also committed to her role as Zhu, even binding her chest to hide her femininity, shifting between coyly flirty and turning completely cold to Liang when her teacher learns of her identity.

Unfortunately, while the love between the two is clearly stated in the libretto, the chemistry between Cathy-Di and Austin is more awkward than warm, and when the two are seen together, one feels disinclined to believe their relationship, even as ‘sworn brothers’. To add on, while they are individually strong singers, when singing together, their voices clash, further emphasising their mismatch as a couple, while the live music also occasionally drowns out their voices. Both performers are also held back by the clunky libretto, which attempts to utilise more flowery English to replicate the classical Chinese style, only to result in stilted, poetic nothings, their love feeling more disingenuous and performative than sincere and emotive.

Amidst the other performers, it is perhaps Michael Dimovski that steals the show in the few scenes he is granted. Playing Zhu’s betrothed, the wealthy and haughty merchant Ma Wencai, there is distinct characterisation, and a clarity and strength to his voice that fixes our attention on him when he appears with a flourish, showing off his riches with pride.

Throughout The Butterfly Lovers, one is also constantly made aware of the attempt to orientalise the adaptation. While it may have been intended as a homage to its Chinese roots, this often results in a clash of aesthetics and feels more forced than natural. There are little nods that make sense in Richard Mills’ score, such as the inclusion of Chinese instruments such as the pipa and dizi, or Max Tan’s regal, colourful costumes representative of the period. But when it seems to go overboard is the choice to put all the actors in thick Chinese opera makeup, which makes for a disjoint between both the language and style of singing utilised.

From a visual perspective, The Butterfly Lovers also features set and multimedia that does not sufficiently serve the epic love story. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia, meant to support the immersion with backdrops of wintry mountains or spring meadows, neither feels realistic nor appealing, and takes us out of the story. Tan and director Ivan Heng also collaborate on the set design, which often feels bare or hastily put together. Even the set’s centrepiece, a bridge, has clear lines indicating where it splits into two separate segments.

In attempting to reimagine a Chinese classic, both Wild Rice and Victorian Opera seem to have fumbled this adaptation, with more focus on trying to make it clear this is an Asian story, dragging out and indulging in its oriental elements rather than serving the emotional heart of the play. There’s a saying that when a butterfly flaps its wings, you can feel its effects on the other side of the world. This is one butterfly that could have afforded more time to metamorphose into something truly beautiful.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon

The Butterfly Lovers ran from 3rd to 7th May 2023 at Victoria Theatre. More information available here

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