An Opera Comes to El Paso by Way of Bhutan

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By RACHEL MON­ROE, New York Times

When the Univer­sity of Texas at El Paso stages its free per­for­mance of Han­del’s English-lan­guage opera “Acis and Galatea” this Satur­day, it will mark the lat­est ex­pres­sion of a cen­tu­ry­old con­nec­tion be­tween El Paso and Bhutan.

The pro­duc­tion — the cul­mi­na­tion of a col­lab­o­ra­tion among the univer­sity, the El Paso Opera and the Bhutanese Royal Academy of Per­form­ing Arts — got off the ground in 2004, when Aaron Carpenè, 50, an Aus­tralia-born con­duc­tor based in Italy had an idea: to stage a Western opera in the Hi­malayan king­dom. “Aaron ca­su­ally asked me if opera had ever been per­formed in Bhutan,” re­called Preston Scott, a for­mer ad­viser to the Bhutanese gov­ern­ment. “I looked into it and found that it hadn’t — and that’s where the idea was born.”

Over the next few years, Mr. Carpenè, Mr. Scott and the Ital­ian di­rec­tor Ste­fano Vizioli ap­proached sev­eral opera com­pa­nies in Europe, the United States and Aus­tralia to find a part­ner. But at the height of the re­ces­sion, with shrink­ing bud­gets and de­clin­ing au­di­ences, none of the com­pa­nies could take on the am­bi­tious project. In 2008, an un­likely part­ner was con­tacted: UTEP, a state school bet­ter known for its foot­ball team than for its mu­sic pro­gram.

But the al­liance made per­fect sense, given the univer­sity’s deep-rooted con­nec­tion to Bhutan. In 1914, the year the school was founded, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic pub­lished one of the first ma­jor dis­patches from the king­dom. Two years later, what was then the State School of Mines and Met­al­lurgy lost sev­eral ma­jor build­ings in a fire. In­spired by the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ar­ti­cle, Kath­leen Wor­rell, the wife of the dean, sug­gested that the new build­ings be built in the Bhutanese style.

Since then, the cul­tural link has per­sisted. Most of the build­ings on cam­pus, even the park­ing garages, re­flect the in­flu­ence of Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture, in­cor­po­rat­ing fea­tures like flared roofs and red brick band­ing.

In­trigued by the prospect of strength­en­ing the univer­sity’s ties to Bhutan while of­fer­ing an un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity for stu­dents, the univer­sity pres­i­dent, Diana Nata­l­i­cio, threw her support be­hind the opera project, which co­in­cides with UTEP’s cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion. The group planned to stage a per­for­mance in Bhutan, then bring the pro­duc­tion to El Paso.

Last Septem­ber, 32 stu­dents, staff mem­bers and fac­ulty em­barked on the 24-hour, four-flight jour­ney to Bhutan. When they fi­nally made it to Thimphu, the cap­i­tal, 12 time zones from El Paso, they joined a group that in­cluded top baroque mu­si­cians and pro­fes­sional opera singers from Italy, Cameroon, the United States and Canada. The company spent two weeks in open-air re­hearsals of­ten at­tended by cu­ri­ous passers-by. “There were al­ways lots of chil­dren and lots of dogs watch­ing us,” Mr. Vizioli re­called.

“Acis and Galatea,” the story of a shep­herd who falls in love with a semi-divine nymph, was cho­sen be­cause its pas­toral set­ting and themes — “love, death, na­ture, rein­car­na­tion,” Mr. Vizioli said — seemed rel­e­vant to a Bhutanese au­di­ence. But sto­ry­telling was the least of the group’s chal­lenges. Bhutan has a rich tra­di­tion of per­for­mance art, but lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture in place to support a Western-style pro­duc­tion.

“There were no prosce­nium the­aters,” said David Grabarke­witz, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the El Paso Opera. “They have only two or three pi­anos in the en­tire coun­try.”

Sev­eral of the in­stru­ments in the pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing a harp­si­chord and a bas­soon, had never been played in Bhutan.

The or­ga­niz­ers wanted to bridge artis­tic gaps by in­te­grat­ing el­e­ments spe­cific to Bhutanese cul­ture. Mr. Vizioli staged the per­for­mances out­doors and in the round, as is the tra­di­tion in Bhutanese pro­duc­tions. Four Bhutanese dancers, with masks and cos­tumes, com­ple­mented the opera’s ac­tion. Artists from the Royal Tex­tile Academy helped cre­ate cos­tumes.

The month of re­hearsals in Bhutan cul­mi­nated in a per­for­mance on a windy af­ter­noon in front of a full house, which in­cluded dig­ni­taries and mem­bers of the Bhutanese royal fam­ily.

“It wasn’t just an artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, it was a deeply mov­ing hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence,” Mr. Vizioli said.

It also ex­panded the worldview of both the dozen or so Bhutanese dancers and mu­si­cians who will travel to El Paso to per­form in the fi­nal pro­duc­tion at the end of the month, and UTEP stu­dents and staff. Em­per­a­tris Cabr­era, a se­nior from Juárez, Mex­ico, had never trav­eled far­ther from home than Salt Lake City.

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