Huang Ruo collaborated with “M. Butterfly” author David Henry Hwang. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera)
“M Butterfly” turns Puccini on his head.
As beautiful as it is, “Madama Butterfly” presents problems of race, gender and cultural differences. Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, “M. Butterfly” offers a corrective, composer Huang Ruo says.
“There are issues with Puccini’s opera,” Ruo said in a telephone interview from Santa Fe. “Of course, it was written 100 years ago by a composer who had never been to the country.”
In Puccini’s version of this unrequited love story, the naval officer Pinkerton seduces and marries Cio Cio San, a young Japanese geisha with whom he has a child. He subsequently abandons her, marrying an American wife who returns to take the child.
In “M. Butterfly,” a French diplomat falls for a Chinese opera singer who presents him with a son. But it is the diplomat who falls into tragedy.
The Santa Fe Opera will host the world premiere of “M. Butterfly” beginning on Saturday, July 30.
Ruo collaborated with “M. Butterfly” author and violinist David Henry Hwang to bring his play to the operatic stage.
Ruo had already completed two operas with Hwang before suggesting the playwright turn to his most famous play.
“Like every other collaboration, we started with the story,” Ruo said. “David is very used to revision. We talked about the structure, where we wanted a chorus scene, where we wanted an aria, where we wanted a trio.”
The libretto differs from the play because of time constraints, he added.
“It takes so long to sing a note.”
The pair sent their revisions back and forth to one another.
Hwang had used snippets of the Puccini original as background music in his play. Ruo did the same, with limits.
“Puccini became a conversation with instead of source music,” he explained. “Sometimes, I paraphrased it. Sometimes, I took the motive and turned it around.”
As for the overture, “I turned it around and changed the notes to a more Eastern flavor,” he added.
“It is about two people who have expectations and desires,” Ruo said. “In the end, neither of them achieved them.”
Puccini penned “Madama Butterfly” after receiving a music box a friend had found in China. The cultural differences became entangled.
“He used some of the tunes in his last opera, ‘Turandot,’ ” Ruo said, “and he used one in ‘Madama Butterfly.’
“Even today, you hear people say all Asians look the same,” he added, “and the fact that this young girl who becomes subjugated to this Caucasian man.”
In “M. Butterfly,” the singer tells the diplomat to imagine an Asian man marrying an American wife, then returns to Japan and the American wife commits suicide.”
“It’s about culture, East and West,” Ruo said.
Also a conductor, Ruo grew up on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China. He studied both composition and piano with his composer father from the age of 6. In 1995, after winning the Henry Mancini Award at the International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland, he continued his education in the US at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and at The Juilliard School in New York City.
“I grew up with Chinese opera,” he said. “Chinese is an opera I knew quite well as a kid. I always thought that music was four-dimensional. When I started writing opera, I fell in love with it because it brought my Chinese opera back.”
“M Butterfly” marks Santa Fe’s 18th world premiere. Baritone Mark Stone sings the role of the diplomat René Gallimard. Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim is the opera star Song Liling and mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu is Comrade Chin/Shu Fang. Tenor and former SFO apprentice singer Joshua Dennis is Marc and Kevin Burdette adds the dual roles of Manuel Toulon and the Judge.