Diplomatic manoeuvres: Mr. Shi and His Lover weaves an intricate musical web

Jordan Cheng in Mr Shi and His Lover

When Mr. Shi and His Lover opens at the National Arts Centre next week, its Canadian composer Njo Kong Kie will be cocking a keen ear for the reaction from one particular segment of the audience.

What all members of the audience will see and hear is a sung-through chamber musical rooted in the notorious real-life, two-decade-long love affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a male Beijing opera star and spy who performed as a woman. The two, who met in the 1960s, were brought to trial and sentenced for spying in 1986.

“Ottawa being a diplomat town, I’m curious to know what will be the reaction of diplomats coming through the door?” says Njo. “We throw questions out there about nationhood, and the role of a diplomat as a performer versus a performer on stage, and loyalty to one’s country.”

The show that Njo hopes will excite discussion in Ottawa’s diplomatic community was inspired by M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s acclaimed drama that debuted in 1988 and a revival of which recently closed after a shorter-than-expected run on Broadway.

Njo says he and Tam Chi Chun, the director of Mr. Shi and His Lover, had been casting about for a fresh idea for a musical when they read the script of M. Butterfly. Njo had also seen David Cronenberg’s 1993 film adaptation of the drama, and, with Tam, spotted an opportunity for a new take on the historical events.

“It was a very intriguing story, and in the end no one knows exactly what transpired. Only the two of them know. Even what they said in court might not be the truth (Boursicot maintained at the trial that he had had no idea his paramour was a male) … The design of the show is to give a different take from Mr. Shi’s side and from Boursicot’s side, so can we come to an interesting conclusion?

Njo and Tam knew from the start that they wanted the production to be intimate, so they opted for the chamber musical format and shipped off their idea for a show to their librettist, Macau playwright Wong Teng Chi.

Wong came up with four different drafts, and a final version was created from them. Njo says he waited to read the libretto before sitting down to compose.

“Knowing the characters and what they’re saying makes it easier for me to reflect from bar to bar what the text is saying, to know what the dramatic intent is from moment to moment.”

Njo’s score blends Beijing and western opera, traditional folk music, pop and even the art song.

That’s because when he looked at Wong’s script and considered that the story takes place over two decades and involves French and Chinese cultures, the rich musical possibilities struck him forcefully.

In the case of Shi, for example, the music of revolutionary opera from the 1960s came to mind, while French pop of the same era was another source.

Musical choices, says Njo, were based on factors like “the dramatic situations of the different scenes and what they revealed about (the men’s) backgrounds.”

The blend of styles also fit Njo’s personal artistic predilections. “I’m not a formally trained composer,” he says. “So my work has always been influenced by a lot of things I come across. I don’t have a systematic way of working so I tend to use whatever I come across.”

The outcome of all this was a two-person show sung in Mandarin with English surtitles. It found its springboard to broader attention when it scooped up four awards at the 2016 SummerWorks Festival in Toronto. It recently drew critical applause when it played Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

The text of the show is “very philosophical,” says Njo, including “a study about what performance is in our lives.” Along with topics like loyalty to country, performance, and truth, “some of the discussions revolve around gender issues and fluidity, but there’s also more of a love story in this version than in M. Butterfly. There’s a much stronger bond between the two (men).”

Mr. Shi and His Lover is in the NAC Azrieli Studio  Jan. 3-13 (preview Jan. 3; opening night, Jan. 4). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.