By now the story of the French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese opera star/spy has acquired the patina of a myth or a folk tale. It has been analyzed, dramatized and debated. Was the diplomat deceived by a cross-dressing secret agent? Were they closet homosexuals? Was the diplomat seduced? How could he not know that the beautiful woman was a man? Or did he know?
Mr Shi and his Lover explores all the options, offers possible theories, and sets the two men's thought processes, philosophizing and psychoanalyzing to music. Like the ambiguity in the story, genders and sexuality, the music ranges through classical opera, Chinese opera, pop music, Angelo Badalamenti and the traditional song structures of Broadway. Composer Njo Kong Kie has created a hybrid that is not a pastiche, the tone and stylistic shifts are too smoothly modulated and carefully matched to the characters' intentions. He also has a sense of humour when an apparently ancient Chinese gong replicates the Baha Men (perhaps that's where the now oft-used sample came from originally?) or quotes Madame Butterfly with reverent mockery.
Both of the performers have fine voices and though the orchestra is composed only of Njo Kong Kie on piano and percussion and Carol Xuanyu Wang on percussion, the sound is rich and full. Jordan Cheng as Mr Shi moves effortless from a tenor to a counter tenor register and when he sings directly to the audience, his ability to seduce is a given fact. Derek Kwan as the diplomat, the "His Lover," has a strong delivery that is particularly suited to a rousing 11 o'clock number that, perversely, comes less than 15 minutes in.
The book writer Derek Kwan and Kong Kie are not as much interested in entertaining , though for the most part they do, as they are in exploring the deception, the performance, that Mr Shi has manifested and what it cost him. Mr Shi sings, "I am an artist, a creator of dreams," before concluding that, "To perform is divine, is love." The question is not so much love, sexuality or even politics, it is how well the performance went. And the performance would never have gone so convincingly or well, if the diplomat had not been a perfect audience. And in this case the diplomat is the audience and not the privileged protagonist, the piece is emphatically titled Mr Shi and His Lover.
Because the ideas and debates are predominant and the conclusion is both romantic and nihilistic, much of the singing is done directly to the audience in the form of monologues. Director Johnny Tam has the characters move minimally and slowly. At first it feels stagy and the few bits of action - Kwan throws himself to the floor in an unexpected barely motivated frenzy - are obtrusive. Then the transformation scene, which we have all been waiting for, is done slowly and deliberately and is breathtaking instead of prurient. That the music, lyrics and stylized actions are mirrored in reverse by Kwan towards the end, ties most of the multitude of philosophical strands together.
There are a few too many ideas rattling around and that dampens the momentum of Mr Shi and His Lover. Or it may be that the translation in the surtitles is unable to express nuances in the Mandarin text. And the characters are determined to be rigorously intellectual and not trapped in the romance of either Madame Butterfly or the legend of "The Butterfly Lovers." But the music refuses and the complexities of the deliberations are swept aside by the passion of the voices. It may be intriguing to so to attempt to puzzle out just what happened but, "To perform is divine, is love."