FOCUS｜Aphrodite: not the Greek Goddess but a Goddess of the “Butterfly Orchid”｜New Taiwanese Opera Unwrapped
How does a story of a fictional utopia, namely the “Orchid Realm,” depicts the greed and obsession of mankind? The opera performance is sung entirely in Taiwanese Hokkien. Director Miwa YANAGI said it was inspired by the extinct orchid flowers endemic to the Orchid Island of Taiwan.
“Interdisciplinary collaborations” mark a much trending element of contemporary cultural creativity. Many artists nowadays constantly seek to combine traditional and modern concepts, transforming them into artistic forms. Deriving from the conventions of Taiwanese opera, Aphrodite fuses contemporary visions into traditional folk art. Co-created and co-produced by Taiwan and Japan, the opera offers a profound reflection beyond single ethnicity, species, and geography.
Aphrodite places orchids at the center of the opera, and the flower imagery bears loaded symbolism. The libretto, acting, music, lighting, and stage design provide multiple dazzling layers of meanings for orchids, manifesting the topics and imaginations that director Miwa YANAGI hopes to invite the audience to be immersed in.
Aphrodite Trailer (English Subtitles)
The secluded “Orchid Realm” is stained by human desire. It reflects the critical position of Taiwan in Asia.
“On the island of Taiwan, there are rich and diverse cultures and languages, just like wild orchids, each bearing its uniqueness.”
These are director Miwa YANAGI’s concluding remarks in the discussion after the premiere of Aphrodite. As an image maker, visual artist, and theater director, Miwa YANAGI has a close relationship with Taiwan. In 2014, she selected electric flower cars as the stage to devise a series of theatrical works. She even commissioned them from Taiwan. This time, conceived by Miwa YANAGI, Aphrodite is a large-scale production bringing together Shiu-Kim Taiwanese Opera Troupe, Chun-Mei Taiwanese Opera Troupe, and Ming Hua Yuan Arts & Cultural Group.
The opera was originally intended to be one of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics cultural events. Miwa YANAGI hoped that through this opera, Taiwan’s diverse nature can be brought to the international stage and embraced by the global audience. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the performance schedule of Aphrodite was much disrupted, yet the touring chaos symbolically matches the story in the opera where the ecosystem of wild orchids gradually collapses due to trespassing of external forces and human activities.
Trespassing an undiscovered land and conquering it. The Taiwanese opera presents a metaphor of history.
Miwa YANAGI constructs a utopia dedicated to orchids. The opera unfolds the story with a Japanese anthropologist Sen investigating indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and accidentally entering the “Orchid Realm” with a Japanese botanist Lin. Lin later took away the wild Phalaenopsis celestial from the secluded place, which triggers further trespassing of orchard merchants from all over the world and leads to the endangerment of wild native orchids at disposal of human desire.
The story of Aphrodite sharply represents the relationship between nature and human beings. In Miwa YANAGI’s eyes, orchids are an embodiment of Taiwan, which can be seen as an allegory of Taiwan’s political and economic position in Asia. Given Miwa YANAGI’s Japanese background that creates the national and geographical distance, her perspective reflects deeper when staging the history of the Japanese taking away orchids from Taiwan during the colonial era.
The “Orchid Realm” is introduced at the very beginning of the story. In her directorial approach, actors, not set or props, are to represent the orchids of the secluded place, which indicates that she consciously disarmed the arrogance of modern human beings. She juxtaposes the orchid fairies and orchid robots on the stage to allow technology to symbolize power, and at the same time transforms this power to the resilience of wild orchids and species in the natural world.
From Tokyo to Weiwuying, Kaohsiung, a panoramic theater is built catering to the architecture.
At first, Orchid species take various forms in the “Orchid Realm”, but after being reproduced in the laboratory, only a single species of Phalaenopsis aphrodite remains. Miwa YANAGI also orchestrates the actors’ movements, staging and positioning, as well as costumes to differentiate the nature of the orchids in these two different conditions: the orchids in the “Orchid Realm” have diverse appearances as they grow freely in the wild. Thus, the actors playing orchids stand relatively far away from one another, while their gestures, movements, and costumes bear individuality. Yet, every lab-reproduced aphrodite wears unified costumes, as actors standing closer to one another with softer and weaker movements. These directorial arrangements suggest that the orchids are distorted after human intervention.
The libretto of Aphrodite is written by You-Hui WANG, a senior Taiwanese playwright/director. The song “Orchid Realm” summarizes the play’s main theme, showing the spirit of wild orchids that Miwa YANAGI longs to share:
“Like a butterfly fluttering away from home, sorrows and joys,
parting and reunion are impermanence;
Into the world across the seas, the orchids continue to sing.
The orchids continue to sing.”
The never-ending song of orchids also reveals care for sustainable nature and awareness of environmental protection.
To reassemble the stage from Tokyo to Weiwuying, Kaohsiung, Miwa YANAGI also captures the architectural features of Weiwuying to design a panoramic theater. Members of the audience can perceive the opera from their unique positions: In some scenes, only the sound and light are spotted while the actors are off-sight. In this regard, You-Hui WANG commented that the director hopes to break the audience’s habitual perspective, so they can fully experience the performance with five senses.
Beyond a metaphor of history: the butterfly orchids present human’s struggle to sustainably thrive on planet earth
The cross-nation, inter-disciplinary creation of Aphrodite presents modern aesthetics, staging Taiwanese operas in the international art world. As a metaphor of human beings, the imagery of orchids enables the audience not only to rethink the relationship between human beings and nature, but also shows the anxiety of humanity in modern times: the struggle to sustainably thrive on this planet, just like the re-dwelling of orchids in the “Orchid Realm.”
The striking presence of the orchid with strong subjectivity and the critical interpretation of human desires are both highlights of this opera. If this play can be performed in various parts of Asia after the epidemic, the plot and fusion genre surely can make an impact on the audience at different levels, no longer limited to the historical relationship between Taiwan and Japan, but more pervasively connected to the existential meaning of all human beings.
Watch Aphrodite on the PTS Plus YouTube Channel, only available outside of Taiwan.
For audiences in Taiwan, please watch Aphrodite on PTS Plus (公視+).
Original Text: Dramago
Written by CHEN Xuan-ren
Edited by CHU Yu-an
Copyedited by Yang LEE
Translated by Maggie Sur-Han CHANG
Editorial review by Whitney HUNG