What is Semele about?
The opera recounts the Greek myth of the love affair between the god Jupiter and Semele, a mortal princess. Semele, seeking "endless pleasure, endless love," leaves behind her earthly life and her arranged marriage to become Jupiter's mistress. However, her life in the love nest soon begins to bore her, and Jupiter's jealous wife Juno schemes to turn Semele's desire and vanity against her. Read the full synopsis here, or watch the video below, which tells the story alongside scenes from the production.
At its core, the story warns against the temptations of lust and greed.
What does the production look like?
Our production of Semele is directed by Chinese visual and
performance artist Zhang Huan, who incorporates many aspects of Chinese
culture into the production. The set's centrepiece is an authentic Ming
Dynasty temple that Zhang salvaged from a small town. The costumes
take their influence from both the European baroque and imperial China.
The production also includes a Chinese dragon and sumo wrestlers. Watch the video below for a montage of scenes and take a look at the photo gallery:
If you're curious about the production, these blog posts and articles offer some photos and insight:
What is the music like?
Semele's music is by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, most famous today for his oratorio Messiah. You can listen to some of Semele's most famous arias and choruses here.
There are a few musical changes from Handel's original opera. Zhang consciously omits Handel’s final joyous chorus from this production, leaving the singers to lament Semele’s death while her ashes are swept away. The ending is in keeping with the Buddhist ideals of the impermanence of all things. And, yet, conclusions are never definite and the cycle of life continues when the final chorus echoes throughout the theatre as the audience exits. In addition, some scenes in this production include music from China and Tibet: you will hear traditional Tibetan singing in the first half and the Communist anthem "International" at the end.
How does the interaction of European and Asian cultures work in this production?
The production aims to create a dialogue between the original opera and the art of other cultures. Zhang draws parallels between Greco-Roman myth and Chinese legends, and also evokes the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation.
Our General Director, Alexander Neef, described the production this way:
"I thought it was a really unique way of doing a baroque opera piece by Handel. It makes an unbelievably strong point for universality — a baroque opera based on a Greek myth taken on by a Chinese director who connects his own Chinese history with that piece. . .That's really what we want to do here. We want to tell stories that are relevant and that speak to people from many, many different backgrounds."
When does the Chinese dragon appear?
Near the end of the opera, Jupiter appears to Semele in his full
godlike form, which leads to her death. The dragon represents
Jupiter-as-god, and it is white, the colour of mourning in Chinese
Who is the person sweeping the temple? Who is the woman who appears in the final projection?
The woman sweeping the temple represents Ruan Jinmei, whose family
lived in the temple before Zhang Huan purchased it. For some
performances, she herself will play this part, sweeping away the ashes of the dead Semele at the end of the opera. It is also her image that
appears, transforming into ash, in the final projection. This blog post
has more of her story.
Zhang Huan explains: "The fact that the roots of pain introduced thousands of years ago, [and retold] in a Western opera, reappear in the East in the fate of a single peasant family in the countryside of China can make us continually ponder the redemptive qualities of humanity. That is the spirit of Semele. In my eyes, Jinmei is my Semele."
What do the sumo wrestlers signify?
Sumo wrestlers appear in Act II, in the scene where Jupiter transforms Semele's palace into an Arcadian grove. They are entertainment for the bored Semele, and also represent godlike figures in Jupiter's fantasy realm.
What does the puppet donkey signify?
The donkey appears in several scenes and takes on different characters over the course of the opera. In China the donkey is associated with peasant weddings, and the donkey first appears at the scene of Semele's impending marriage to Prince Athamas. Later, in the highly sexual scene in Jupiter's garden, the donkey functions as a representative of humanity's lust and animal nature.
Is Semele appropriate for children?
Semele contains some nudity and overtly sexual scenes that may be of concern to parents. Ultimately, it's up to individual parents to decide what is appropriate for their child.
Photo: Jane Archibald as Semele (foreground) and William Burden as Jupiter (background) in the Canadian Opera Company production of Semele, 2012. Photo by Michael Cooper.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001