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Friday, February 27, 2015

In Context: Semele

The Canadian Opera Company's production of Handel's Semele comes to BAM March 4—10. Context is everything, so get even closer to the show with this curated selection of articles, interviews, and videos related to the production. Once you've seen it, help us keep the conversation going by telling us what you thought below.

Program Notes

Semele (PDF)


Article + Video
Myth Manifest: Zhang Huan’s Semele (
Learn more about the history of the Semele temple, get to know director and art provocateur Zhang Huan, and more.

Zhang Huan’s Notes on Semele (BAM Blog)
Faced with the choice of using a fake set or something real, Zhang Huan chose 17 tons of the latter.

Zhang Huan on Chinese Dreams (The Guardian)
Zhang Huan has come a long way since his days of sitting naked in public toilets, covered  in flies.

Semele in a Chinese Shrine (BAM Blog)
A 450-year-old Chinese temple was director Zhang Huan’s “doorway” into the world of Semele and Handel.

Zhang Huan at Pace Gallery (
View Zhang Huan's visual art.

Look & Listen

Building the Semele temple at BAM (
Watch the BAM stage crew build a 450-year-old, 17-ton Ming Dynasty temple on the opera house stage.

Going With The Flow: Handel's Semele (
Some were Team Opera. Some were Team Oratorio. Handel wrote Semele to bring them together.

Altered States: The Art of Zhang Huan (YouTube)
A survey of performance-art milestones by Zhang Huan.

Opera in Handel’s London (BBC)
Semele began as an oratorio but was eventually performed as an opera. Immerse yourself in the musical milieu of the time.

Now your turn...

So how did you enjoy the show? Likes? Dislikes? Surprises? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below.


  1. Conductor knows his stuff, groundbreaking director/designer, amazing production and sets, beautiful choir, ensemble cast. Hard to beat. Kill the librettist. OK, drive a stake through his body.

  2. Conductor knows his stuff, groundbreaking director/designer, amazing production and sets, beautiful choir, ensemble cast. Hard to beat. Kill the librettist. OK, drive a stake through his body.

  3. The performance was excellent especially the lead two singers, sets were beautiful, costumes were interesting though a combination of styles (except for Juno's person), wondrous moments were wonderful. What was perplexing, and often incongruous, were some of the Eastern parts (wrestlers, in your face opening video)... perhaps there should have been more of them? And my only real disappoint was the lack of flames at the end. Still, thank you, and congratulations!
    Stephanie, March 5.

  4. Great vocal performances, especially the lead--she was amazing. Attempts to fuse East/West didn't really work for me and the sumo wrestlers served no purpose. I thought the set was kind of bland, other than the amazing mirror scene which was the highlight of the show. The end was very disappointing. The director's lack of experience with opera showed.

  5. This production merged east and west with a powerful and beautiful result. Handel's score was played with great nuance. Handel is usually associated with refined, chaste, courtly manners. To set it against a production that featured rich sensuality, choreographed in balletic fashion, was powerful and refreshing. The Tibetan singer at the end of the first Act was primal and transporting. The costumes were exquisite, dazzling in their radiance of Chinese color and texture. We go to BAM to be taken to another place. This happened for me last night at Semele. Thank you Canadian Opera Company, Zhang Huan, Han Feng and BAM.

  6. The show was fantastic: Jane Archibald & Kyle Ketelson just gorgeous voices as was the whole cast.
    The only negative: why do they seat people once the show has started? It is disruptive and inconsiderate to those who got there on time. Don't do that!

  7. The story of Semele being burnt to ash by Jupiter appearing to her in his true form is really compelling. I always enjoy Handel's frilly music and Jane Archibald's divine voice was well suited for the role of Semele. Her gorgeous moments of coloratura in this opera were a thrill to hear. The chorus was fantastic as well. But just as I would slip into the pleasures of the music, I would be distracted away by some silly gag like Sumo wrestlers. Or copulating couples. Or a horse with a hard-on. Which brings me to Chinese artist Zhang Huan's set design and direction. I was impressed that he chose to literally reconstruct a 450-year-old Chinese temple -- weighing 17 tons -- on BAM's stage. I absolutely loved the costumes and lush fabrics. The scene with a sleepy god, Somnus, on the roof of the temple was fabulous. So was the mirror scene. I also enjoyed the gentle humor of the staging and acting -- to a point. When the goofiness took my attention completely away from the music, that's when it felt more like a disruption. That said, it was a fun evening despite disruptions of another kind: audience outbursts. Someone heckled the film segment at the beginning. Another disgruntled woman in the balcony shouted at the person behind her for kicking her seat. I also agree with the person who commented about the late seating. It really is disruptive, and especially challenging with the already cramped seating -- especially in the balcony.

  8. Semele at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

    Out of my group 2/5 people liked the Chinese-directed baroque German opera based on Ovid's Metamorphosis (Jason says that's bullshit)?

    1. My favorite part was the perpetual sweeping xaoling monk in the third act who was absolutely oblivious to the action happening around him. Did I mention he swept extra-slowly to the beat of the aria repeated 8 times?
    2. Each aria was repeated at least 8 times with differing syntax.
    3. The soprano's solo happened after the curtain turned into a 20 meter tall mirror reflecting the audience.
    4. The sumo wrestlers made peace and skipped backstage holding hands. Not sure... I can't even.
    5. Bestiality! There was an orgy featuring and entire temple-full of wushu monks centered around a brocade horse with a 5-foot throbbing penis while a guy slapped it's arse. The fabric, purple-red-pink-blue parsley pattern, looked like a terrible acid trip where the couch comes to get you. In the prostate.
    6. Respect was paid to the Aristotelian theater unities of time, space and action.
    7. When Semele dies, there is a funeral scene (with the sweeping monk) and it fades out into a recording of a Chinese girl's face melting down the curtain to the sound of rain. I think it evokes the protagonists from Ovid's metamorphosis. They die horribly but are turned into beautiful nature creatures. Like Arachne into a spider. So Semele turns into rain.
    8. The most poorly behaved opera audience I have EVER seen. A fight nearly broke out in the lobby, a full-grown man throwing a tantrum over lacking a ticket and banging the elevator doors, the woman behind me didn't want me to lean forwards, folks outright telling each other "shaaat aaaap" before the intermission was over, and hooting like they at a Barclay's Center basketball match.

  9. Both the cast and orchestra were superb. Every performance was musically spot on and inspiring. The production was distracting -- leaving out the final chorus because of some Buddhist precept was an odd choice -- it's a German Baroque opera. Sumo wrestlers, priapic donkeys, orgies -- along with the giggling & hooting that these inspired in the more juvenile members of the audience -- during the performance were unfortunate choices.

    This was a terrible audience, people were talking, eating sandwiches and salads (the usher caught the salad), constantly trying to switch to "better" seats and generally misbehaving.

    BAM -- please stop seating people during performance (a brief break in the action while music is still playing is not a reason to let latecomers in). In addition, if you serve food at your venue, it's safe to assume that people will think it's OK to eat and drink wherever they want. If you need to attract a wider audience, you should probably be much clearer about the manner in which you expect patrons to conduct themselves.

  10. Excellent singers & orchestra. The production was beautiful and entertaining. The omission of the happy ending made the story more powerful.

  11. The stage direction could be a great plastic artist but doesn understand the opera language , a pitty I went tomthe Bam with a great illusion , also I took my daughters and we were completely dissapointed. The same happened inRusalka at the Met.I wonder whomhad the great idea to invite as a stage director artists from other languages..... The marketing will make that the opera would dissapeare ......

  12. This was an awful production. I must agree with Lizzie about the stage direction. The Director knows nothing about opera. The production was so silly, especially the horse. Was it really necessary to have him copulate with a human. The singin was the worse I've heard in New York. If BAM wants to be a show case for opera they should get great companies with great singers to come and perform. This was below ac onservatory production. The one thing I learned from this experience is I do not like early operas.

  13. I agree with Anonymous from March 8. Beautiful music, great voices; I appreciated the attempt to imbue this with a more contemporary sensibility and to fuse Greek mythology and Eastern culture but I thought the result was a bit of a mishmash, a little kitsch and cartoonish at times. Not the best Baroque opera production I've seen at BAM, but a bold choice, which is exactly why BAM is my go-to opera venue! After seeing Robert Lepage's Blue Dragon at BAM, I would like to see him direct an opera like this. Oh, and I agree about the latecomers and sandwich eaters - this is not the Met Live in HD, it's live opera. Please show a little respect for performers and spectators!

  14. I saw it yesterday. This was my first time at BAM (and my first time in Brooklyn). I came up from Washington, DC area to see it (I love baroque opera). Glorious music. Delightful staging (LOVED the mirror and the temple).

    My only real complaint is that sometimes the volume of the orchestra made it difficult to hear the singers.

  15. Ugh, I can only comment on half as I left at intermission...............Handel is my favorite composer, and I couldn't bear to see what was done to this beautiful opera. I forgot once again how unbearably hot and uncomfortable BAM is............I sure wish the MET would do more Handel............I sure miss City Opera..............

  16. I read Tomassini's review in the NYT and was expecting a mediocre performance; he hardly mentioned the music. I was actually thrilled by the singing, especially the two leads. I thought the aria that Jane Archibald sang in the grove was breathtaking. I agree with some of the comments that while in general the Asian influence was welcome, some touches such as the Sumo wrestlers and the donkey were just silly and detracted from the overall experience.

  17. I went to the final performance last night and was pleasantly surprised by how good the music was. I've heard a lot of Handel but never this work. The production was bizarre and problematic. I loved how the work ended, with the chorus humming the Internationale, but I didn't quite understand how that fit in to an opera by Handel,

  18. Final performance review: orchestra wonderful, singing OK but not loud enough in mid-mezz. Temple set beautiful. BUT what a travesty of a directorial "vision!" Zhang Huan should go back to doing his stupid "art" and leave opera alone. Most of what he did made no sense and in the process distracted from some beautiful music. The donkey? Really! And the Sumo wrestlers? Isn't that principally a Japanese tradition? (And we were disgusted by what was apparently a neophyte opera audience that sniggered at every supposedly "sexual" innuendo and then laughed hilariously at the ridiculous antics of the donkey and the chorus of insisted on talking to each other throughout the performance as if they were home watching TV.) In short, the director's bizarre conception of "Semele" was a BOMB and it ruined what should have been a wonderful night of music...and no, we are not particularly conservative when it comes to new ways of looking at a work. We just want the director to respect the music and the libretto (no matter how "silly")...and maybe even respect the audience. We left at intermission depressed and angry.


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