‘Mr. Shi and his lover’ gets complicated

Opera draws on Chinese tradition of disguised gender tales

While opera-haters might accuse the art form of being hyperbolic and overblown, it’s hard to imagine a better means of telling the almost too strange to be true story of Mr. Shi and his lover.

The opera, about a French diplomat who falls in love with a male-opera singer posing as a woman, is based on the astonishing affair of Bernard Boursicot, a French embassy worker and Shi Pei Pu, a Beijing opera singer. Both were arrested for espionage by the French government in 1982, almost 20 years after they became romantically involved.

Working with these details, it would be easy for Mr. Shi and his lover to double down on the scandalous aspects of the story. But the play, which stars Jordan Cheng as Shi, and Derek Kwan as Boursicot, is remarkably thoughtful. In the solo and duets of the show, the characters explore identity, nationalism, love and desire to create a dramatic and contemplative performance. 

The opera also doesn’t flinch in demonstrating the ramifications of such a torrid affair. As the story progresses, we see that the prison the characters find themselves in pales in comparison to the toll their relationship took on each other.

A very modern and minimalist opera, Mr. Shi and his lover draws on a tradition of Chinese stories involving disguising gender. The Butterfly Lovers, a story about a women who dresses as a man to pursue an education, is referenced during the opera. Perhaps more widely known by North American audiences, there is also Hua Mulan, the story of girl who pretends to be a man to fight for her country, which was adapted into a 1998 Disney film.     

It’s through this theme of disguising gender as an act of patriotism that Mr. Shi and his lover truly takes off as an opera of intrigue. Does Mr. Shi mislead his lover just to selflessly benefit his country? Or is it more about the selfish thrill of a performer pulling his greatest show? For Kwan’s character, we’re left wondering to what extent he was a willing participant in the deception or Mr. Shi’s victim. 

As is often the case in love and relationships, it’s complicated.

Mr. Shi and his lover, directed by Tam Chi Chun and composed by Njo Kong Kie, is playing at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave.) until Dec. 17.  $29 for students, $55-60 general admission.

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‘Mr. Shi and his lover’ gets complicated