Review: The Butterfly Lovers

Arts Centre, Melbourne

Opera lovers are in for a treat as Victorian Opera marks its Spring season with the premiere of a sumptuous new opera, The Butterfly Lovers.  Its pedigree is rock-solid: the score is composed and conducted by VO’s Artistic Director Richard Mills (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Batavia), with a libretto by rising Singaporean playwright Joel Tan.

The opera was developed with Wild Rice, one of Singapore’s leading theatre companies, founded by award-winning theatre practitioner Ivan Heng, who directs this production.

The Butterfly Lovers
Photos by Charlie Kinross

Although Mills and Heng conceived the idea for the opera in 2015, it’s been postponed twice due to the pandemic. But it’s been worth the wait: this opera is a triumph of perseverance and East-West collaboration, with the creative team seamlessly drawn from across Australia and Asia.

The story is based on a much-loved Chinese folk tale.  There have been many versions, including a film and Chinese opera. Think Romeo and Juliet meets an operatic Yentl.  Beautiful Yingtai disguises herself as a man in order to study. She falls in love with fellow student, Shanbo. But Yingtai has been promised to another. In despair, the lovers die of grief, forever united as butterflies after death.

Mills’ score is rich and layered, and includes both the pipa (Chinese lute) and dizi (Chinese flute) in the instrumentation, but this never feels kitsch or forced, perfectly setting time and place. The lovers often sing in the high register of classic Chinese opera, and are given tender love duets and introspective arias.  A chorus comments solemnly on the action. There are ominous drumrolls, joyous fanfares, and a single, frantic, piercing scream, as Yingtai contemplates her life without Shanbo. In one of the opera’s more light-hearted moments, Yingtai’s second suitor breaks out into a highly ornamented solo that reflects his pompous character.

Soprano Cathy-Di Zhang (Yingtai) and counter-tenor Meili Li (Shanbo) are the lovers, their voices soaring, dipping, blending. Their costumes and makeup are so similar, their voices so perfectly matched, they are truly each other’s second self. Director Ivan Hen emphasises the homoerotic tension in their relationship, and the gender fluidity of the tale echoes with contemporary resonance. Baritone Haotian Qi, who doubles as Yingtai’s father and her study Master, also shows great presence and gravitas.

Despite the episodic and highly stylised nature of this opera, Yingtai and Shanbo are three dimensional characters, brought to life by the poetry of Joel Tan’s libretto, which captures the fleeting nature of the passing seasons.

Heng’s direction rarely misses a beat. He understands this is an opera of disguises, revealing what is concealed and uncovering the truth. When Yingtai steps out of her heavily embroidered wedding cloak and throws herself on Shanbo’s grave, dressed in a simple white shift, she embraces her true identity. This celebration of individuality and the essence of self brings the ancient folk tale into the Twenty-first century.

Visually, the production is simply beautiful. Following the Chinese opera tradition, the stage is bare apart from organic shapes that are a backdrop for Brian Gothong Tan’s striking multimedia. A semi circle becomes a bridge, then a roof, the snowstorms of winter melt into the plum blossoms of spring. Chapeau, too, to Philip Lethlean’s atmospheric lighting and Max Tan’s gorgeous costumes.

The one false note must be the last scene, with Yingtai and Shanbo blissfully reunited as spirits on a puffy cloud, with the chorus decked out in what looks like wispy white remnants from a Spotlight end of year sale. It’s an unnecessarily sentimental finale to an otherwise magnificent production.

The Butterfly Lovers premiere season has been dedicated to the memory of Max Riebl, who was to sing the role of Shanbo in this production. Max was a great talent whose life was tragically cut short by cancer this year.

Check out the latest on What’s on Stage in Melbourne here.

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Dina Ross

Dina Ross

Dina Ross is an arts reviewer, broadcaster and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The Age, Herald Sun, Australian Book Review and Good Reading. She hosted the book program ‘Page Turners’ on 3MBS FM and curated a series of short story readings, ‘Shorts at 45’ at fortyfivedownstairs.
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