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Baroque opera meets Buddhism in the Canadian Opera Company’s U.S. premier of “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the hands of director Zhang Huan—a Chinese performance artist based in Shanghai—George Handel’s 18th century oratorio takes a turn away from tradition as Chinese and Japanese cultures intervene with the Greek tragedy.
“Semele” is Huan’s directorial debut and first foray into theatrical set design. In his notes on “Semele” Huan stated, “My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”
Lead by Christopher Moulds, the Canadian Opera Company’s orchestra, chorus and cast may stay true to the original score, but Huan’s Eastern embellishments transform this production into a balancing act between opera and performance art.
Originally adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, “Semele” tells the tale of a mortal woman’s relationship with Jupiter, the King of Gods, only to be fooled into her own death by Jupiter’s Goddess wife, Juno. Right from the beginning, the play submerges viewers with a massive diversion from the myth as an actual Ming Dynasty temple becomes the focal point of all the action onstage.
This massive 17-ton temple was a guiding reason Huan adapted “Semele.” The artist was first approached in 2007 by the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels and KT Wong Foundation to direct a more non-traditional version of the opera. It was not until the artist purchased a 450 year old temple that he decided to rework this classic tale. While moving the temple from rural China to his studio in Shanghai, he uncovered a diary of the humble family who used the space as a home and workplace. Huan saw a connection between the family and “Semele,” and this relationship between Chinese culture and Greek tragedy became the catalyst for his direction and set design.
This exact shrine is rebuilt on BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House stage. The Buddhist backdrop foreshadows the non sequitur events that unfold as the three acts progress. The play opens with a short film telling the story of this family in rural Quzhou, China. What ensues is an assortment of wild events—traditional Native American song, sumo wrestlers, rapturous monks, an inflatable puppet and even a laughable scene with an aroused donkey all share the stage with the operatic ensemble.
Stunning visuals add to the opera’s fanciful theme. Act III opens with an enormous collapsed puppet on top of the temple, which serves as the artistic accompaniment to the scene when Juno and Iris, the messenger to the Gods and Juno’s accomplice, awaken Somnus, the God of sleep, to aid in their mischievous plight against Semele. In a later scene, Juno, dressed in the guise of Semele’s sister Ino, visits the mistress to give her a magic mirror which will ultimately initiate her fateful demise. As Juno begins her ruse, the curtain quickly opens to unveil the stage’s transformation into a wall of mirrors that even reflects the audience and the opera house’s lush red velvet interior.
In the final scene the temple becomes a crematorium as Semele burns from the flames of Jupiter’s godly form—an ode to Buddhism’s ideals of the impermanence of all living things. Between the songs, orchestra, and eccentric performances, Huan’s “Semele” is a true attempt at updating the age-old practice of opera into an innovative theatrical experience.