Bhutan Experience Teaches More Than Opera

By Jenn Crawford

UTEP News Service

For several UTEP students in the Opera Bhutan chorus and orchestra, the trip to Bhutan was their first time on an airplane. Thirty-one people, including seven UTEP staff and faculty, boarded the plane at El Paso International Airport Sept. 29 for a 60-hour journey that included stops in Chicago; Toyko; Bangkok; Paro, Bhutan; and finally, Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu, where they arrived by bus on Oct. 2.

After settling into the hotel, learning their way around downtown Thimphu and getting advice on drinking tap water (don’t), stray dogs (most are harmless but they sometimes bark all night), and where to buy authentic Bhutanese clothing and handicrafts, the UTEP group attempted to start the jet lag recovery process and readjust their internal clocks by 12 hours before rehearsals started the next morning.The Opera Bhutan group arrives at the airport in Paro, Bhutan Oct. 2. Photo by Jenn Crawford / UTEP News ServiceThe Opera Bhutan group arrives at the airport in Paro, Bhutan Oct. 2. Photo by Jenn Crawford / UTEP News Service

The Opera Bhutan project originated in the mind of Aaron Carpenè, a musician and conductor who contacted Preston Scott, adviser to the Royal Government of Bhutan on a range of cultural projects, in 2004 to ask if an opera had ever been performed in the country. The answer was no, but the timing was not right for the Bhutanese government to pursue it.

By 2010, the project had evolved to include Italian stage director Stefano Vizioli and UTEP. Three years later, a group of about 70 people from 10 countries were in Bhutan preparing to perform the opera.

At the first rehearsal in Thimphu, the UTEP team was greeted by a dozen other foreigners working on the project who had already been in the country for a few days, as well as Bhutanese dancers, musicians, carpenters and painters. Karma Wangchuk led the Bhutanese construction crew. He is the architect who has consulted with UTEP on the lhakhang, a Bhutanese building constructed for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that was donated to the people of the United States and resides on the UTEP campus as a cultural center.

Wangchuk and his team, along with technical directors and audio engineers from the Smithsonian, were busy constructing a wooden stage and tents in the courtyard of Thimphu’s Royal Textile Academy. Since performances on a stage with an orchestra were unknown in Bhutan, the Opera Bhutan crew had to construct everything, from speaker and monitor stands to orchestra risers and music stands.

The instrumentalists and singers knew their music before arriving in Thimphu, as did the four lead vocalists – Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Italy), Thomas Macleay (Canada), Jacques-Greg Belobo (Cameroon) and Brian Downen (United States) – but no one knew the choreography and staging until those last two weeks of preparation in Bhutan with Vizioli.

Members of the Opera Bhutan chorus pose on stage after their world premier performance. They are, from left, (front) senior Jessica Barney, UTEP graduate Michelle Vance, senior Monica Cabrera, senior Leslie Yapor, (back) junior Adrian Salas, sophomore Abraham Quezada and graduate student Raul Chavira. Photo by Jenn Crawford / UTEP News ServiceMembers of the Opera Bhutan chorus pose on stage after their world premier performance. They are, from left, (front) senior Jessica Barney, UTEP graduate Michelle Vance, senior Monica Cabrera, senior Leslie Yapor, (back) junior Adrian Salas, sophomore Abraham Quezada and graduate student Raul Chavira. Photo by Jenn Crawford / UTEP News Service“I wanted to capture the atmosphere of a traditional Bhutanese performance, where the action is central and the audience is arranged around the performing space,” Vizioli explained in his vision for the opera, which would be the first in the world to incorporate Bhutanese dance, music and cultural elements. “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.”

Years of work came to fruition Oct. 12 with the world premier of Opera Bhutan’s Acis and Galatea. An international audience of close to 350 attended, many dressed in the traditional gho (for men) and kira (for women), including UTEP staff, friends and supporters. 

Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, a wife of the previous king, attended with other members of the royal family and spoke to the cast and orchestra on stage after their performance. She thanked them for putting on this special event and said she was moved to tears at the end.

She was not the only one in the audience with teary eyes that afternoon. The crew, staff, American and foreign guests, and even some of the Bhutanese schoolchildren who saw the open dress rehearsal the day before were touched by the beautiful music, colorful costumes and movements of the Bhutanese dancers and tragic, yet hopeful plot of the ancient story.

After the performance, the student performers and musicians gathered on stage, hugging and congratulating each other, accepting compliments from members of the audience and looking around wistfully, trying to soak up every detail of that moment.

“I can still remember the feeling I had when I was performing on stage,” said Mariana Sandoval, a junior music performance major, after returning to El Paso. “Everything that I’ve ever done no longer mattered at that moment where I was truly happy to be doing what I love with people who became family.”

For cellist Nathan Black, a junior music performance major, the long, hard days of preparation had been worth the effort.

“We worked six hours a day, seven days a week to prepare for this historic event,” he said. “We grew tired quickly, but none of us wanted to miss out on soaking up all that was offered in this wonderful place … When the opera was finished, the air was filled with cheers.

“We will probably never get to go on this magnificent journey again, but one thing we are sure about is that a small piece of each and every one of us is embedded there for all of time.”