By Jane Huang
Mr Shi and His Lover is a Chinese opera about a whirlwind political scandal between a Chinese opera singer and a French diplomat. With an international team of performers from Macau, Taiwan, and Toronto, the show is a kinetic multilingual delight. It’s based on the true story of the affair between Shi Pei Pu and Bernard Boursicot, which inspired David Henry Hwang’s Madame Butterfly. As a first timer to Chinese opera, I was unsure of what to expect but became engrossed by the story’s mystery, drama, and emotion.
The entire performance is accompanied by live instrumentals with singing and dialogue. Even though the show is in Mandarin, the English and Chinese subtitles are projected onto the back curtains of the theatre. This allows the audience to witness the poetic language of the love story between Mr. Shi and Bernard.
The idea of the 表现 (performance) is a cornerstone of this opera, making it a very meta production. Mr. Shi, the show’s antihero, is an opera singer who is obsessed with perfecting his craft both on-stage and in his personal life. For him, the lines between performance and reality are blurred. As such, Mr. Shi sets out to seduce a French diplomat, Bernard, by masquerading as a woman. Mr. Shi’s constant reference to the acting that he does in everyday life draws the audience into the performance by making them hyperaware of the actor’s acting. One of the most intriguing parts of the play is when Mr. Shi’s mask begins to slip to reveal the terrified child hiding beneath the deceitful and arrogant exterior. Bernard, too, has his fair share of fascinating moments, such as the scene where he can tell the difference between Eastern and Western art using a golden painted fan.
The show is emotional to the extreme as the two characters pull us along on their rollercoaster ride of loss, love, and identity confusion. I enjoyed the way that so many elements of the opera contrasted with one another. We saw the clashing dichotomies between East and West, truth and lies, and ideals and fantasies. It was especially refreshing to see the Chinese opera actively grapple with questions about gender and sexuality. Another favourite moment from the show was Mr. Shi’s on-stage transformation from man into woman, accompanied by his passionate speech about the power of performance.
Rich with meaning and emotion, I would recommend it to anybody looking to experience a taste of Chinese opera. Mr. Shi and His Lover is on now at SummerWorks, so get your tickets now!