By Jess C
Those who are familiar with classical Chinese literature will have heard of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, the legendary, ill-fated ‘Butterfly Lovers’ of yore. When Dama Orchestra — almost synonymous for their high quality and unique presentations of Shanghai-style shi dai qu — decided to stage this well-loved tale as the group’s first musical, both artistic director Pun Kai Loon and music director Khor Seng Chew knew they faced a mammoth task.
Could Dama live up to expectations? Could their latest production stand up to the inevitable comparisons: to the Shaw Brothers’ 1960s silver screen version, Love Eteme, starring the legendary Ivy Ling Po — and our own attempts, such as the Temple of Fine Arts’ award-winning 2003 dance drama, and Lee Swee Keong’s solo performance piece earlier this year?
Once Upon a Time
Butterfly Lovers – The Musical, which ran from the September 27 to October 15, 2006 at KLPac’s Pentas 1, was a refreshing departure from traditional staging: a presentation of an age-old legend with the nostalgia-tinged, but still fresh and contemporary feel Dama does so well.
‘Butterfly Lovers’, set in the time of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265 – 420 AD), is a Romeo & Juliet type of love tragedy with strains of Yenti-style proto-feminism. The heroine, Zhu Yingtai (played by Dama resident soprano Tan Soo Suan), daughter of a wealthy landlord (Liau Siau Suan), longs for an education — denied to girls in those days. By the miracle of dressing up as a man, Yingtai manages to persuade her parents’ assent (though how one’s parents could not even recognise their own daughter, even with the cross-dressing, is beyond me). She sets off for Nishun College, befriending the poor scholar Liang Shanbo (Yang Wei Han) en route.
The two become sworn brothers. During the three years they spend in college, the inevitable happens: Yingtai falls for Shanbo. He only finds out later that his dear ‘brother’ is actually a woman, and decides to propose — but it is too late: Yingtai’s father has match-made her with the rich playboy Ma Wenchai.
Soo Suan was simply brilliant as Yingtai. A trained classical singer (with two BOH Cameronian Arts Awards for Best Vocal Performance, no less), her impeccable and beautiful vocal deliverance was the soul of the musical. And though Butterfly Lovers was her acting debut, Soo Suan managed to carry the role convincingly, handling the anguish and heartbreak of the show’s later scenes with tearful aplomb.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were not so stellar. Pop artiste-turned-stage actor Yang Wei Han, who appeared in the Ho Lin Huay musicals Siddhartha and Above Full Moon, looked right for his role as the scholar-pauper Shanbo, but had voice and acting skills that — though commendable — were overshadowed by Soo Suan’s powerful voice. The supporting ensemble, sixteen strong in mostly non-speaking roles, were similarly well cast, but did not stand out.
Dama’s Butterfly Lovers employs a clever linguistic device: besides English-language subtitles for the calligraphically-impaired, An English narrator provides comic relief, giving opinionated comments about the lovers that bring contrasts with the high drama onstage. Having English spoken in a Mandarin production might seem odd to the puritan, but when the narrating voice is revealed to be that of villain Ma Wenchai, this conflict of languages serves to heighten Yingtai’s sense of alienation, and emphasises the fact that she is still, after all, a daughter under the tyrannical yoke of the patriarchy. Edwin Sumun’s dramatic and deep voice filled this role effectively.
The musical’s contemporary set was devoid of the ornamental reds and golds typical of period Chinese dramatisations, leaving much to the audiences’ own imaginations — a design sensibility, complemented by the elegant and not overly elaborate period costumes of Dominique Devorsine, that was quite effective at keeping attentions on the performance. This minimalist desire to cut away at paraphernalia even extended to the titular orchestra’s place in Butterfly Lovers: unlike previous shows, Dama’s 20-piece ensemble took a total back seat, playing behind the curtain.
Butterfly Lovers ends in grief for its lovers — Shanbo dies and Yingtai dies at his grave. Our spirited, headstrong feminist heroine — who was unafraid to push social and traditional boundaries that confine women to the home -- finally gives up testing the boundaries of empowerment allowed her in that era, and ends up sacrificing her life in the name of love.
Still, all the anguish and heartache escalates into a dramatic last scene that is, despite itself, totally mesmerizing. On the night I attended Butterfly Lovers, Soo Suan’s penultimate howling and crying moved me to tears. The intense mood, helped by a combination of special-effects rain, thunder and lightning and Dama Orchestra’s crashing music – playing along to pre-recorded tracks for a richer and more textured effect — built up to a climax.
Our star-crossed lovers, reunited in death and transformed into a pair of butterflies, were portrayed at the end by the mythic silhouettes of two large butterflies, fluttering around their graves. The poignancy of this quiet moment, after the tumult of the storm, was very fitting.
So was Butterfly Lovers successful? The short answer: yes. Dama had to add three more performances to their week-long run — this, if nothing else, says that the musical has been causing quite a stir among theatre-goers. Just like their previous efforts, Dama delivers.
Jess C is a music enthusiast.
First Published: 17.10.2006 on Kakiseni