In George Friedrich Handel’s 1743 opera Semele, which is based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a young woman named Semele runs away from a would-be marriage to have an affair with Jupiter. She finds herself in trouble when Juno grows angry because her husband is sleeping with a mortal. Naturally, because this is a Roman myth, the sex-crazed, meddling mortal winds up dead—literally engulfed in the flames of Jupiter’s passion—by the time the curtain closes.
By now, the tale is so familiar that, if made contemporary, it could be a popular television show, and nobody would think twice. In fact, the opera has even been restaged in the past decade with Semele recast as Marilyn Monroe, now caught in a triangle with the Kennedys.
But when it was announced that Chinese artist Zhang Huan would direct a Belgian production of Semele in 2009, both the opera and art worlds were shocked. Since then, Zhang’s Semele has made several stops around the world, sold out many performances, and left audiences confounded. When Zhang’s production came to Canada in 2012, Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail typified critics’ response when he wrote in his review, “It didn’t really connect with the opera Handel wrote.” This week, it will finally make its U.S. premiere at Brooklyn’s BAM, where it will have four performances.
Zhang is perhaps best known for radical performances like 65 Kilograms (1994), for which he had himself chained to a wooden ceiling and had doctors attach a catheter to a vein, thus allowing blood to drip into a bowl on the floor. But Zhang also has a less provocative side as well. He also uses photography and sculpture to think through history and ritual, often in poetic, quiet ways that seem to have come from an entirely different person than the one who slathered himself in fish oil and honey and sat in a latrine for hours for 12 Square Meters (1994).
When I first heard about Semele, I was shocked that Zhang would try his hand at the Handel production. Why would a performance artist restage an 18th-century opera? In an email, Zhang, who lives in Shanghai, told me he was still surprised that he took on the project, too.
“Knowing nothing about operas, I am a complete outsider,” Zhang said. “The sponsors [of the Belgian production] wanted to invite a contemporary artist to be the director, so they came to me several times.”
In Zhang’s production, the opera no longer takes place in ancient Rome. The setting is ambiguous. Zhang’s set is dominated by a 450-year-old wooden Ming Dynasty temple, which will be rebuilt in his studio after the production. The opera becomes a curious case of East meets West.
“The ancestral temple was located at the town of Du’ze in Quzhou City, on the border of the Zhejiang and Anhui Provinces,” Zhang said. “When the house was being torn down, the abandoned household goods of the previous residents were collected together. Unexpectedly, I found a diary documenting the host’s life among them. The content of the diary mainly concerned his feelings of love and hate toward his wife, as well as his feelings of duty and frustration toward his family. This story seemed to be the Eastern edition of the opera Semele.”
He went on, “By taking an ancestral family temple with over 450 years of history and rebuilding it on the stage of a Western opera house, 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 Western guests who enter the opera house to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”
Zhang’s Semele is bookended by two references to history. The opera begins with a video that explains the temple’s origins, and it closes with its cast singing the Communist “Internationale,” which served as both the national anthem for the Chinese Soviet Republic and a rally song used in the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. (Both the prologue and the finale were censored when Semele came to China. An anatomically correct donkey in one scene remained intact, however.) For Zhang, the history in his production, however Chinese it may be, speaks to something larger about humanity.
“My opera is a narrative as Chinese as it is Greek, as contemporary as it is classical, and this unique stage will make it as much a reality as it is a myth, as much a story of humans as one of gods,” he said.
When I asked Zhang if there was any relationship between the way he directed Semele and his performances, he told me that his performance art “pays more attention to the individual experience during the process. It feels like the monk’s monastic practice.” Zhang’s faith has informed Semele.
“Deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, I care about mankind’s life and death, as well as its spirituality,” Zhang said. “Some props play as metaphors, telling us that the human desire and greed will continue to expand, but, in the end, will return to dust.”
That’s an appropriate thing to say for Semele. It closes with a video that shows an oversize portrait of Semele made of incense ash. (“It is my invention to introduce incense ash into art,” Zhang said. He will have a show of ash paintings at New York’s Pace Gallery in the fall.) Ash slowly falls off the portrait until it is no more—the image, like Semele, has died. Ash and dust are symbolically charged in Semele and touch on something universal.
“At the end of the opera, Semele sweeps the floor of the stage,” Zhang said. “This means cleaning the dust of our minds. You can feel the dust of the old house; you can catch a whiff of the centuries-old smell on it. You unmistakably get a sense of the lives and tragedies experienced by generations that have lived there. It transports you to another world, where you may commune with innumerable souls of the past.”
Looking at history, we know that Semele’s story will repeat itself. “In the never-ending suffering [caused by] desire, mankind is doomed to ceaselessly regress in an endless cycle, until we return to the beginning,” Zhang said. “This is drama, this is life.”