What is Semele about?
The opera recounts the Greek myth of the love affair between the god Jupiter and Semele, a mortal princess. Semele, seeking "endless pleasure, endless love," leaves behind her earthly life and her arranged marriage to become Jupiter's mistress. However, her life in the love nest soon begins to bore her, and Jupiter's jealous wife Juno schemes to turn Semele's desire and vanity against her. Read the full synopsis here, or watch the video below, which tells the story alongside scenes from the production.
At its core, the story warns against the temptations of lust and greed.
What does the production look like?
Our production of Semele is directed by Chinese visual and
performance artist Zhang Huan, who incorporates many aspects of Chinese
culture into the production. The set's centrepiece is an authentic Ming
Dynasty temple that Zhang salvaged from a small town. The costumes
take their influence from both the European baroque and imperial China.
The production also includes a Chinese dragon and sumo wrestlers. Watch the video below for a montage of scenes and take a look at the photo gallery:
If you're curious about the production, these blog posts and articles offer some photos and insight:
What is the music like?
Semele's music is by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, most famous today for his oratorio Messiah. You can listen to some of Semele's most famous arias and choruses here.
There are a few musical changes from Handel's original opera. Zhang consciously omits Handel’s final joyous chorus from this production, leaving the singers to lament Semele’s death while her ashes are swept away. The ending is in keeping with the Buddhist ideals of the impermanence of all things. And, yet, conclusions are never definite and the cycle of life continues when the final chorus echoes throughout the theatre as the audience exits. In addition, some scenes in this production include music from China and Tibet: you will hear traditional Tibetan singing in the first half and the Communist anthem "International" at the end.
How does the interaction of European and Asian cultures work in this production?
The production aims to create a dialogue between the original opera and the art of other cultures. Zhang draws parallels between Greco-Roman myth and Chinese legends, and also evokes the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation.
Our General Director, Alexander Neef, described the production this way:
"I thought it was a really unique way of doing a baroque opera piece by Handel. It makes an unbelievably strong point for universality — a baroque opera based on a Greek myth taken on by a Chinese director who connects his own Chinese history with that piece. . .That's really what we want to do here. We want to tell stories that are relevant and that speak to people from many, many different backgrounds."
When does the Chinese dragon appear?
Near the end of the opera, Jupiter appears to Semele in his full
godlike form, which leads to her death. The dragon represents
Jupiter-as-god, and it is white, the colour of mourning in Chinese
Who is the person sweeping the temple? Who is the woman who appears in the final projection?
The woman sweeping the temple represents Ruan Jinmei, whose family
lived in the temple before Zhang Huan purchased it. For some
performances, she herself will play this part, sweeping away the ashes of the dead Semele at the end of the opera. It is also her image that
appears, transforming into ash, in the final projection. This blog post
has more of her story.
Zhang Huan explains: "The fact that the roots of pain introduced thousands of years ago, [and retold] in a Western opera, reappear in the East in the fate of a single peasant family in the countryside of China can make us continually ponder the redemptive qualities of humanity. That is the spirit of Semele. In my eyes, Jinmei is my Semele."
What do the sumo wrestlers signify?
Sumo wrestlers appear in Act II, in the scene where Jupiter transforms Semele's palace into an Arcadian grove. They are entertainment for the bored Semele, and also represent godlike figures in Jupiter's fantasy realm.
What does the puppet donkey signify?
The donkey appears in several scenes and takes on different characters over the course of the opera. In China the donkey is associated with peasant weddings, and the donkey first appears at the scene of Semele's impending marriage to Prince Athamas. Later, in the highly sexual scene in Jupiter's garden, the donkey functions as a representative of humanity's lust and animal nature.
Is Semele appropriate for children?
Semele contains some nudity and overtly sexual scenes that may be of concern to parents. Ultimately, it's up to individual parents to decide what is appropriate for their child.
Photo: Jane Archibald as Semele (foreground) and William Burden as Jupiter (background) in the Canadian Opera Company production of Semele, 2012. Photo by Michael Cooper.
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[This article by Carly Anderson, children and youth programs manager at the COC, is currently available in the spring issue of our Prelude magazine. Watch the video above for an interview with Zhang Huan, the director of Semele]
Chinese artist Zhang Huan (interviewed on video above) rose to prominence on the international art scene in the 1990s with his iconoclastic and visceral “body experiments,” which recorded his body in extreme states of being. His first performances were a mixture of masochism and Taoist tests, which dealt with the vulnerability and fragility of corporeal experience. A classically trained painter, Mr. Zhang’s practice evolved to embrace more traditional forms of artistic creation including large-scale sculpture and painting. For his 2001 symbolic self-portrait “Peace Bell,” he created a large bell based on Tibetan temple models and inscribed it with the names of several generations of his ancestors. Beside it, a detailed cast of his body is suspended horizontally. The bell is rung when the artist’s effigy crashes into it head first, and the artist and the bell become one through an act of apparent violence. The common thread in Zhang’s work is the paradoxical nature of self-inflicted pain and the tension between physical transgression and the Buddhist-inspired quest for peace and enlightenment.
Semele (1743) – Zhang’s first directorial and design foray into lyric theatre – was composed by George Frideric Handel with a libretto by William Congreve as adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Daughter of the Theban King Cadmus, Semele is betrothed to the mortal Prince Athamas, but she is in love with the god Jupiter. His wife, Juno, having learned that her husband has built a palace for Semele, unleashes a plot to undo her. In a departure from the Ovidian myth, Juno calls upon Somnus, god of sleep, to cast Semele’s sister Ino into a deep sleep. Juno transforms into Ino, takes advantage of Semele’s naiveté, and plants the seeds of doubt that bring about Semele’s self-destruction. A covetous Semele offers Jupiter her body in return for immortality. Jupiter concedes and the mortal Semele is consumed by the god’s fire (read the full synopsis here). Zhang infuses this Greco-Roman myth with eastern iconography and philosophy, the centrepiece of which is a 450-year-old Ming Dynasty ancestral temple that Zhang discovered in a small town several hours west of Shanghai.
The disassembly and transportation of the temple to Zhang’s factory-sized Shanghai studio is documented in a video, which plays during the opera’s overture. In the video we learn that during the excavation of the temple, Zhang discovered several domestic relics including the diary of a man who lived in the temple about 20 years ago. The diary tells the story of the man’s beautiful wife, Ruan Jinmei, who was unfaithful to him. “A majority of the diary is written about his love and hate for his wife, and his sense of responsibility and helplessness for his family,” notes Zhang. In the end, the man murdered one of her lovers, resulting in his arrest and subsequent execution by firing squad.
Zhang was intrigued by the story’s similarity to the Ovidian myth and in a 2009 interview with The New York Times relayed: “I was amazed how this tale out of contemporary China was like the Greek tragedy, and it inspired me to do the production.” The central backdrop of this production – the ancestral temple – transforms through the incredible lighting design by Wolfgang Göebbel into both a marriage altar and Semele’s palace. The grandeur of the ornate wooden temple is complemented by Chinese-born fashion designer Han Feng’s luxurious costumes, made with colourful and patterned silks that recall traditional Chinese theatre, paired with Baroque tailoring.
Zhang successfully interweaves facets of Eastern and Western cultures and plays off the dualities, creating a narrative that is as contemporary as it is classical, and as much a part of Roman mythology as it is a story about human beings. Prior to the production’s 2009 debut at Théâtre de la Monnaie, Zhang said: “The fact that the roots of pain introduced hundreds of years ago in a Western opera reappear in the East, in the fate of a single peasant family in the countryside, can make us continually ponder the redemption of humanity.” Throughout Semele, Zhang weaves a multitude of narratives – the classical myth, the peasant family and his own personal iconography – all of which creates a story that is wholly different than what has preceded it.
Zhang has replaced the figure of Jupiter (traditionally signified by his white beard and lightning bolt) with the symbolic Chinese dragon. The opera does not conclude with Bacchanalian revelry and the marriage of Ino and Athamas, but instead with the image of the beautiful widow, Mrs. Ruan, mirrored back at us. In Zhang’s interpretation of Semele, the stress is not on the mythic. It is scaled back to focus on the human element – the single person. The mythic and the mundane, the sacred and the banal become one, and the myth is made manifest in our final glimpse of Ruan’s reflection.
First Photo: A scene from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production of Semele. Photo © Karl Forster 2009
Second Photo: A scene from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production of Semele. Photo © Karl Forster 2009
Third Photo: Jeremy Ovenden as Jupiter and Ying Huang as Semele in a scene from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production. Photo © Karl Forster 2009
Fourth photo: Image of widow Ruan Jinmei created in the style of Zhang's series of "ash paintings," in which he paints with ash collected from temples around Shanghai to create vivid portraiture. Zhang considers the ash immaterial, a kind of collective soul or memory. Photo by Zhang Huan.
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Here's something to whet your appetite for Wednesday's Opera 101 event:
Last Friday, we invited a select group of media backstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts to get a first glimpse of the set for Semele, an authentic 450-year-old Chinese temple. The temple was assembled backstage by a team of 10-12 stagehands at the Four Seasons Centre over a period of four nights, and in this time-lapse video you can see the entire process in four minutes:
The temple weighs approximately 17 tonnes and required a specially-built crane to assemble (which you can see in the video). It was also built on top of a special rolling platform so that it can easily be moved on and off the stage to accommodate performances of The Tales of Hoffmann and A Florentine Tragedy/Gianni Schicchi.
In this video from Global News, you can see parts of the temple in close-up as well as interviews with Alexander Neef, Jane Archibald (Semele), and Allyson McHardy (Juno/Ino).
In addition, clothing blog Fashion is My Muse took a closer look at the wigs and costumes, barczablog shared some thoughts about director Zhang Huan and the overall concept for Semele, and CharPo Canada used the event as a springboard to think of the larger question of storytelling in opera, and how to make the story compelling and satisfying. I encourage you to read them all as Semele's opening night (May 9!) draws closer.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001