News Column

UTEP's Centennial performance Saturday will blend Bhutanese dance, music with Western opera

August 28, 2014

By MarÍa CortÉs GonzÁlez, El Paso Times, Texas



Aug. 28--The University of Texas at El Paso on Saturday will blend dance and music from the kingdom of Bhutan with Western opera, a combination that has been called "marvelous."

Eleven performers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Bhutan will perform with 25 UTEP students and four professional opera singers in "An Evening of Music & Dance from Bhutan" at the Don Haskins Center.

The 80-minute performance will fuse Bhutanese music and dance with Western cultural elements including George Frideric Handel's "Acis and Galatea".

Steve Wilson, production manager, said the program made its premiere in Thimphu, Bhutan in October when UTEP students and some faculty, including school President Diana Natalicio, went to Bhutan.

"We already had the connection through the architecture and a couple of individual students had gone to Bhutan but we had never had truly a significant interaction with them on this level. It was a great idea and a wonderful way to commemorate the centennial," he said.

The idea of collaborating talents -- including professional opera singers Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, Brian Downen, Jacques-Greg Belobo and Thomas Macleay -- started in 2004 with Australian conductor Aaron CarpenÈ and stage director Stefano Vizioli.

"They had taken a trip to Bhutan and really loved the culture and dance and thought it would be great to bring opera there," Wilson said.

In 2008, the Smithsonian held the largest celebration of Bhutanese life and culture ever presented outside of the kingdom of Bhutan. The event was curated by Preston Scott, who had worked with the Royal Government of Bhutan. It gave CarpenÈ the opportunity to ask Scott if the opera had ever been done in Bhutan and that started the ball rolling.

They met with representatives of UTEP and learned of its connection with Bhutan -- the Dzong architecture of the school reflects Land of the Thunder Dragon -- and eventually presented the idea to the Bhutanese government officials.

The special recital took place on Oct. 12 and it was first of its kind ever performed in the tiny Himalayan kingdom and before an international audience of about 350 -- including Bhutan's Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck.

David Grabarkewitz, artistic director for the El Paso Opera, said the blending of Bhutanese music and dance turned out to be a natural fit with Western opera.

"I find it to look and sound seamless. In fact, one El Pasoan traveled with us as a tourist to Bhutan to see the live performance there and said 'now that I've seen this opera with Bhutanese dancers I can't imagine it without.' "

He added, "And that's sort of truthful. I've done "Acis and Galatea" a couple of times but this interpretation by Stefano Vizioli is truly marvelous."

The pastoral opera is about a shepherd Acis who is in love with the semi-divine nymph Galatea. The monster Polyphemus also loves her and mortally wounds Acis in a jealous rage. Galatea uses her magic powers to turn her lover into a stream that will flow eternally.

The Bhutanese performers have been in El Paso since Aug. 24 performing at various schools and are excited to share their culture with El Paso audiences.

Goen Tshering, director of the academy, said the main responsibility of the school is to preserve and promote Bhutanese culture.

"Culture is very important in our country. It's identification and one of our pillars," he told students Tuesday at La Fe Preparatory School.

As part of their performance Saturday, the Bhutanese dancers will sing and perform songs that most children in Bhutan learn at school or with their families as well as songs that celebrate the environment, such as the beautiful mountains of Bhutan.

The dancers don elaborate costumes with colorful prints and play special Bhutanese instruments including flutes, lutes, a decimal drum and long, thin horns.

The performance is for all ages and free.

"I hope people come away with the joy of opera and the beauty and spectacle of the Bhutanese dancers," Grabarkewitz said.

MarÌa CortÉs GonzÁlez may be reached at 546-6150.

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(c)2014 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

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Source: El Paso Times (TX)


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