Or, How an Eighteenth-Century Opera Written by a German Living in England Gets Performed by an International Cast in Thimphu (Eastern Himalayas) and El Paso (West Texas)
We at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage often say that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival never ends. Of course, in a physical sense it does end, usually on the Sunday following the Fourth of July. What we usually mean, however, is that the Festival never stops affecting those who have experienced it—whether as participants, staff, or visitors.
The Bhutan program from the 2008 Folklife Festival is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Titled Land of the Thunder Dragon, the program was, according to curator Preston Scott, “the largest and most comprehensive celebration of Bhutanese life and culture ever presented outside of the kingdom”—the small independent country nestled high in the Himalayas and surrounded entirely by China and India. Roughly 150 participants—representing some of Bhutan’s finest artists, musicians, singers, dancers, cooks, and more—spent two weeks on the National Mall sharing their culture with tens of thousands of Americans, many of whom had never before heard of Bhutan.
The Festival that summer also featured the state of Texas, including participants from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), which—in a purely serendipitous way—contains on its campus the largest constellation of Bhutanese-inspired architecture anywhere outside Bhutan itself. The explanation is that in 1916, when fire destroyed a large part of what was then the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, Kathleen Worrell, wife of the school’s dean, suggested they rebuild along Bhutanese lines. Worrell had seen photographs of Bhutan and examples of its architecture in the April 1914 issue of National Geographic magazine and felt that the landscape of El Paso was similar in some ways to Bhutan. As a result, dozens of buildings on UTEP’s campus today reflect the styles of windows, roofs, friezes, and walls that distinguish the elegant architectural style found halfway around the world.
Soon to be the crowning centerpiece of UTEP’s Bhutanese-inspired campus is the very same lhakhang, or Buddhist temple, that was specifically designed in Bhutan for construction and use at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. Following the Festival, the lhakhang was disassembled and transported to an El Paso warehouse, where it stayed until the time was right to reconstruct it at UTEP last year. The building is scheduled to open in early 2015 as a campus intercultural center, marking a culmination of the university’s Centennial celebration and its own remarkable connections with Bhutan.
The lhakhang is just one example of what connects Bhutan, UTEP, and the Smithsonian. UTEP President Diana Natalicio explains that when she took office in 1988, she felt that the university “needed more than the architecture to communicate Bhutan to our students. I personally had seen the impact on my own life of international opportunities—as a Fulbright student in Brazil, for instance—so I thought it was important to create for our students some sense of another world out there that they might sometime want to see and experience.”
As it turns out, there were other people with similar ideas working to create exactly this sort of international exchange and intercultural dialogue. Smithsonian curator Preston Scott recalls that in 2004 he received a telephone call out of the blue from a friend asking if Western-style opera had ever been performed in Bhutan. The caller was Aaron Carpenè, an Australian-born musician and conductor living in Rome who had become fascinated by Bhutan, thanks in part to what he had heard about the country from Scott.
“Doing an opera in the Himalayas, let alone in a country like Bhutan, which is not a wealthy country, was kind of a crazy idea,” Carpenè admitted. “It seemed completely unrealistic, but the idea was very attractive for both Preston and me. First of all, opera had never really been performed there before, so people really didn’t know what it’s about. In fact, when I started talking to Bhutanese people they would say ‘Opera, yeah! We love Oprah Winfrey!’”
Carpenè began searching for an opera that might resonate with Bhutanese culture and felt that the answer might be Acis and Galatea, written in 1718 by the German-born
Georg Friedrich Händel, then living in London.
“This is amazing because first of all it’s a libretto in English, rather than Italian,” he explained. “English is the second language in Bhutan, so already there is an immediacy and accessibility to this. Secondly the story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is a collection of stories about transformation, which relate to the Buddhist idea that death is not the end but is only a passage to something else. Acis and Galatea could be something that the Buddhist sensibility in Bhutan could relate to.”
Meanwhile, Scott was working with the Smithsonian to produce the Folklife Festival program on Bhutan, and thus making frequent trips there all through the 2000s. He, along with Carpenè and Stefano Vizioli, a seasoned opera director also based in Italy, created the Opera Bhutan project and used their contacts around the world to assemble a team to premiere Acis and Galatea in Bhutan.
Many ups and downs ensued over the course of a decade, but the result was indeed the first Western opera ever produced in Bhutan—on October 12, 2013, in the courtyard of the Royal Textile Academy in Thimphu, attended by members of Bhutan’s royal family in addition to other curious Bhutanese citizens and visiting foreigners. The four principal singers hailed from Cameroon, Canada, Italy, and the United States. The orchestra featured performers from Croatia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States, including a substantial number from UTEP. The technical crew was equally international, with the Smithsonian’s Robert Schneider serving as technical director and scenic designer. And the chorus consisted of UTEP students from the United States and Mexico, some of whom had never before flown in an airplane.
But what made this production so distinctive was the incorporation into the Händel opera of talent from Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts, wearing Bhutanese costumes and performing Bhutanese music, dance, and song.
As Vizioli explained, “While honoring aspects that belong to both the traditions of Bhutanese and Western performing arts, my aim is that both sides focus on sharing common feelings, languages, and aspects of human nature in a higher concept of brotherhood through art, music, and knowledge.”
Nearly one year elapsed before the opera’s next performance, which took place August 30, 2014, in UTEP’s cavernous Don Haskins Center. The cast was headed by the same four principal singers, many of the same members of the UTEP chorus, and again talent from Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts, all under the leadership of Carpenè as conductor and musical director, Vizioli as stage director, and their colleagues.
Undoubtedly the biggest difference was that instead of the open air of a Bhutanese courtyard, surrounded by the Himalayas and multicolored Buddhist prayer flags, Acis and Galatea was performed in El Paso inside a 12,222-seat arena festooned with bright orange banners highlighting UTEP’s athletic achievements.
“We know that we’ve already produced the first opera ever performed in Bhutan,” Scott observed. “But this also may be the first time a baroque opera has ever been performed on a basketball court!”
Several thousand audience members from Texas, New Mexico, Mexico, and beyond enjoyed the performance—applauding frequently and laughing at the moments of intended comedy. But equally significant were the intercultural dialogues and exchanges. According to Scott, the performance was “a tremendous vehicle for teaching and inspiring people. We want to introduce people to opera, but for me that is not enough. If we at the Smithsonian really do our mission, we should create—just like at the Folklife Festival—the experiences that go beyond so-called ‘culture.’ This opera project is an example of one such vehicle, for everyone to learn about Bhutan and for the Bhutanese to learn about us.”
That kind of mutual learning and nurturing was perhaps the greatest benefit for the thirty-three UTEP students, faculty, and staff members who traveled to Bhutan in October 2013—most of whom also participated in the El Paso performance in August. Elisa Fraser Wilson, the UTEP music professor who closely worked with the students as chorus master, observed numerous instances in which the perspectives of UTEP students were indelibly broadened by their experience.
“We had students who really hadn’t been away from home much,” Wilson noted. “What I see now is that they are much more independent in how they approach their studies and their work lives. And with different forms of social media, they now communicate with people all over the world. Their vision has gone way beyond this little place, stuck off in a far corner of Texas, to a whole wide world.”
Opera Bhutan welcomes new opportunities to share its production of Acis and Galatea around that wide world. In other words, the Festival never ends.
James Deutsch is a CFCH curator who has helped plan and develop Folklife Festival programs on the Peace Corps, China, Hungary, NASA, Mekong River, U.S. Forest Service, and Silk Road. Ever since living two years in Germany, he has been an opera fan, and he traveled to both Bhutan and Texas for the performances of Acis and Galatea.