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20 September 2022

Richard Mills Talks The Butterfly Lovers

Richard Mills, composer Image: Richard Mills, composer  

In a famous Chinese legend, doomed lovers find freedom when their spirits transform into butterflies.

Yingtai disguises herself as a boy to pursue an education. On the way to commence her studies, she meets Shanbo and they become friends. Confused by their growing attraction, they eventually succumb to their love. But Yingtai is destined for an arranged marriage. Only as butterflies can they be together forever.

In an international collaboration with Singapore's Wild Rice theatre, Victorian Opera's Richard Mills has composed a new opera with a libretto by playwright Joel Tan. Directed by one of Asia's greatest theatre-makers, Ivan Heng, expect the colour and sound of Chinese culture fused with traditions of opera. Here, Ioanna Salmanidis interviews the composer to find out how the opera has come to life.

How did The Butterfly Lovers come to be part of Victorian Opera's 2022 season?

RM: Well, it's a long story. I first became aware of Ivan Heng in the late '90s at a Melbourne Festival in which he played Emily in Emily of Emerald Hill. I thought he was the most remarkable practitioner of theatre. Several years later, Jeff Street who was running the Festival on the Bay in Singapore phoned me for some advice and I said, 'Oh do you know Ivan Heng? I thought he was a remarkable artist. I'd really like to meet him', and as it happened Ivan was in Melbourne on business sometime in the fairly near future and we managed to meet. So he invited me to come up to Singapore which I duly did. We met and we talked about the possibility of working together with our two companies and this was the result, it was Ivan's suggestion and Joel Tan was Ivan's suggestion as a librettist. Joel's done a wonderful job.

Were you familiar with the legend before the idea to stage it was discussed?

RM: Well not really except it's a story on the Willow patterned plates. You see the bridge and the two butterflies, or the two birds as they become. So it's sort of familiar.

Can you talk about the working relationship you have with the librettist? As the composer, what do you need the librettist to consider so that you're set up properly when you begin to compose?

RM: Well Joel had never written a libretto before but I got him reading the Giacosa and Illica libretto from La Bohème, the Hofmannsthal libretti for Strauss, and he's a very, very skilled writer. He soon cottoned on to what was necessary, was really good to work with and very helpful, and so he came up with a really beautiful text. It's a very fine poem.

What sort of atmosphere or sound have you tried to create for The Butterfly Lovers and what type of compositional techniques have you used to do so?

RM: The basic, if you like. The compositional technique that's most important is harmony because the notes all have to mean something. They have to be part of the musical argument because there's a very small orchestra and it's got the two Chinese instruments, the pipa and the dizi, so every note in the score has to really earn it's place. There's a lot of harmonic subtext, a lot of procedures. There's a lot of use of the pentatonic scale but not in a really obvious way, it's subsumed into a more complex harmonic language. There's another chord that's built from layers of fifths which opens the work, I call it the 'Earth and Heaven' chord, and of course, that's very important. It's got to do with the idea of vastness, of the horizon, of the union of earth and heavens, but also transformation because the fifths generate transformation. That music is at the very beginning with the storm that opens the opera and it comes back later when the storm recurs and the whole metamorphosis occurs of the two lovers. So it's there subliminally all the time.

As I say, there's a lot of subtext and the play out of the relationship is enacted through a lot of harmonic flux, which becomes quite complicated.

In this work, you've composed for two Chinese instruments, the dizi and pipa, which I believe you've never composed for before. Can you tell us a little bit about the two instruments, what you learnt composing for them and why you wanted to include them in the orchestration?

RM: Well Ivan wanted them. I found it very difficult, I have to say. So the way I solved my problem with them is I treated them as a character, the image of ancestral authority, and that's the way they're used. They're very limited instruments, I mean they've got their own beauty, but you've got to really limit what you do for them because they're very pure and they do certain things very beautifully.

Did you have to build your orchestration around them?

RM: Sort of, well I mean, they're easy to overpower so you've got to be careful where you use them. One interesting thing about them is that really pure sound, you can use a lot of bitonal elements. For example, at the beginning of scene four, you've got a situation where it's a recurrence of winter again and so you have this kind of pentatonic sound in the orchestra. So you're using quite simple harmonies but you've got a polymode, the pipa in one mode and the dizi in another mode, which produces a kind of tension which you then pick notes common to the mode to resolve it.

Can you talk us through your composition process?

RM: Well you start at the beginning with first ideas. The first idea I got was that chord, which comes from the fourths in the pipa and the layered fourths and the opera kind of erupts from that.

The opera has a lot to do with shifting. The story is about the suppression of women, about the commodification of women, its a plea for the dignity of women, women to be treated as people with their own right and their own agency, and they're own capacity for destiny and how that must be respected. And so, in this hideous patriarchal society, where women are simply controlled like cattle, I mean they're commodities, Yingtai wants to be educated, she wants knowledge, she wants to learn. She achieves that, she's in the academy, but of course she meets Shanbo on the way. They become friends and then not lovers in a physical sense because the relationship as man and man is never consummated, and they find it very confronting and very difficult to understand. Then, when the relationship can be consummated, where Shanbo travels to Yingtai's ancestral home where she's summoned home from the academy to an arranged marriage, because of the Confucian order and Yingtai's familial party, she has to dismiss Shanbo who dies, who is swallowed up by the earth. Then she breaks out of this repressed thing of being dressed up with make up and finery, and throws herself into his grave and then of course they are transmuted into butterflies.

What does the role of the conductor entail within the context of an opera?

RM: Well it depends on the conductor. A conductor is a teacher, a mentor, a guide, and has to engineer the performance. But a conductor has to have an intellectual and artistic authority. Keeping the performance together is the last, that's the tip of the iceberg. The whole shape, the whole musicality, the whole rhetoric, every part of speech, every aspect of the language, musical and verbal, is the conductor's business. And balance.

What do you do to prepare when you're conducting an opera?

RM: Just study, that's all you do. Study, study, study.

Is there anything you look for in the score?

RM: No, you just learn the score at the piano and then if it's really complicated, like Elektra, you have to actually go through it in real time to get the rhythms. There are subliminal rhythms in every opera, I mean in Elektra it's a broad two, which is inexorable though the opera, I mean it manifests in different ways, and the same with The Butterfly Lovers, is really this fast-moving mercurial pace that opens the opera which is there being transformed the whole time.

Why did you want to become a composer and what did you do to get there?

RM: It just was an appetite I guess, it's just like you want food. I just felt the need to do it. I wanted to do it, I had music inside me and it wanted to come out. I don't know. I'd advise anyone against it, it's a terrible life.

What would you have done if you didn't do music?

RM: Oh anything. I mean, music's a very hard life and writing music is one of the hardest of all. It's the physical labour of writing any long piece is enormous. It just takes time, I mean, hours at the desk actually physicallyputting the notes on paper. It takes time. And for a pieces that is ninty-five minutes long, there are a lot of notes, even though it is a small orchestra. In a way I found this even harder than writing a conventional opera with a conventional opera orchestra. Because every note has to earn it's place and it's very tricky.

Finally, what advice would you give to any aspiring composers or/and conductors?

RM: Study your craft. Conductors should be able to play an instrument very well, preferably at a professional standard, and a keyboard as well. They should be able to play an orchestral instrument as well as the keyboard at a level. I was an orchestral principal and I played piano certainly well enough to coach professionally and not do concerts anymore.

Then you need to be able to arrange, you need to have a complete working knowledge of the orchestra. Then you have to have knowledge of historical performance practice; an understanding of structure, of architecture; an understanding of musical cultures and of national styles; an understanding of program building; an understating of opera, of languages, and all the secrets of the human voice. There is much to know. I mean there is a formidable amount to know and my advice to anyone who wants to work as a conductor is to become involved with opera because opera is the mother of conductors, it has always been so, because it deals with breath and the human voice. It deals with pacing, it deals with balance, it deals with shaping, drama, everything, so it's the mother of conductors, so that's where, if you want to become a conductor you should work in opera.

This interview was originally published via Victorian Opera.

The world premiere season of The Butterfly Lovers will be performed at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse, 12-15 October 2022.

Victorian Opera is the state opera company of Victoria. Since the company was founded in October 2005, Victorian Opera has entertained hundreds of thousands of people with an imaginative approach to opera and musical theatre. Each year, Victorian Opera premieres at least one new Australian opera and have commissioned 32 new works since their formation.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Ioanna Salmanidis is a classical pianist specialising in solo and chamber performance. She is the co-founder of Ochre Trio, a Melbourne-based chamber ensemble that performs contemporary classical music composed by established and emerging Australian composers and regularly performs with tenor, Douglas Kelly, presenting lieder and art song. Ioanna is also an arts administrator with a focus on arts education. She has over five years experience  administering music education programs to schools and young musicians.


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