Previously: Shi Pei Pu transforms into “the princess” as he prepares for her big night back onstage. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.
The room where Shi Pei Pu’s televised performance was to take place was absolutely packed with lighting fixtures, cameras, sound booms, electrical cords, recording equipment, and bustling technicians. Folding chairs had been set up for some sixty or seventy invited guests, and additional spectators stood behind the camera equipment. An immediate and full silence fell upon the room as Shi Pei Pu made his entrance, holding ever more tightly to my arm. The spectators craned their necks to observe the appearance of the personage whose life story—in lurid detail—was known to each and every one of them. As we approached the front of the room, polite applause brought a slight smile to the princess’s face just before she ascended the two steps to the stage.
The cameras, lights, and speakers were put through their final checks. Simultaneously, Shi Pei Pu explained to the audience that the opera from which he would sing three arias involved the chance meeting of a princess and a peasant boy, each wearing cross-gender disguises.
The first aria, my client explained to the hushed room, was about the sadness the love-stricken youths both felt, because each of them thought that they were the wrong gender to pursue the relationship. However the second selection, Shi Pei Pu added, was an aria of pure joy, for not only did the enamored youths discover that they’d both been in cross-dress disguise, but the peasant boy also discovered that he was actually of royal blood. In the third and final aria, Shi continued, the engagement of the couple was blessed by a delighted Emperor. A polite giggle arose from the savvy audience, presumably because each and every one of these plot elements has been used over and over again in both Italian opera and Shakespearean drama.
After he finished his synopsis, Shi Pei Pu bowed slightly and received yet another round of polite applause. With that, he turned away from the audience and once again became entirely still. Remarkably still. The cameras rolled. The accompanist began to play the piano. And then, a good twenty measures into the music, Shi Pei Pu turned to face the audience, and there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he did so as a woman.
The recital itself was completely unlike any other performance I had ever attended. Normally there is a considerable degree of connection, of like-mindedness, between a performer and the patrons who have elected to attend. Here, however, from the very first note that Shi Pei Pu launched into the air, there was a profound disconnection, an unbridgeable chasm that continued to widen measure by measure. To begin with, there were the costuming issues mentioned earlier, grossly exaggerated by the bright lighting apparently required for television filming. On top of this was the confusion, bordering on discomfort, which arose from the multiple levels of gender misrepresentation: the role of a cross-dressing boy was being sung by a male dressed as a female who understood himself to be a female although he always dressed as a male. But these two elements of disconnection between diva and audience paled in the face of the audial onslaught.
It is arguably the case that there is no music on Earth more foreign to the western ear than Chinese opera. It doesn’t matter what level of cultural relativism and goodwill a westerner brings to listening to these alien sounds, or how open one’s mind is to experiencing a new and different branch of opera. The chords are so dissonant to our sensibilities and experience, so harsh, so brash, so in violation of the chromatic scale that informs our western sense of musicality, that there is essentially no way to approach the music.
Worse still, this inherent dissonance was magnified a hundredfold by the performance itself. Sadly, Shi Pei Pu’s voice wasn’t in any better condition than was his costume. While no doubt his vocal abilities had once been appropriate for a soprano role, this clearly was no longer the case. His advanced age, his difficult life, his forty extra pounds, and his lack of practice had quite apparently all taken their toll. The delicate soprano tones he so wanted to retrieve were simply no longer available, and the audience found itself assaulted by an uneven and quavering baritone voice that was completely inconsistent with the portrayal of a young princess.
The more the princess sang, the greater the estrangement became. By the time the third aria was completed, there were tears in her eyes as she looked out at an audience that sat in stunned silence, mouths agape. After she finished, almost as a second thought, a belated and brief round of unconvincing applause broke out, but it was far too modest, and far too late. Shi Pei Pu visibly shuddered at being so out of place, so disconnected, so alone, and the recital ended uncomfortably for all involved.
The audience dissipated quickly, while the entire People Magazine crew, which now numbered fully twenty people with the appearance of editors and executives, hurried down the richly carpeted stairs to Maxim’s bar. I walked with a greatly deflated Shi Pei Pu back to his dressing room. I asked if I could accompany him home, or better yet, take him out for dinner. But he preferred that I call him at home in the morning, and closed the powder-room door to be alone.
Taking my leave, I lost no time in making my way to the first-floor and gladly joined Bertaux who was seated at the bar. I learned that he had arrived just moments before the performance had begun. He soon spotted a bottle of scotch that was so top-shelf that the barkeep literally had to climb a small ladder to reach it. God knows what those drinks cost the magazine, but as Bertaux had no sympathy whatsoever for People or the use it was making of his friend, he couldn’t have cared less. An hour later, we hugged good-bye on the sidewalk and went our separate ways. Although I see my dear friend every couple of years, when work or pleasure takes me to Paris, Shi Pei Pu and his strange life have been conspicuously absent from our conversations. For some reason, we must feel we have exhausted the topic.
A few years later I saw in the press that Shi Pei Pu had died—so, once again, he got a moment of the media coverage he so coveted. It was like the last firework to explode on July 4th, before the sky finally goes dark. Sadly, even in the articles written after his death, Shi Pei Pu was ridiculed and belittled—and disbelieved. Society isolates those it labels deviant, and surely such persons are among the loneliest souls on Earth.
Even the minutiae of the more interesting legal cases I’ve worked on seem to endure in my mind— despite many years having passed. And so it is with the curious and singular case of the man who would be a woman.
I suppose there are some ways in which his life story would seem less compelling today; after all, in the intervening quarter century, the western world has accepted the gay lifestyle to the point where same-sex marriage has obtained both legal protection and broad social acceptance. Most among us don’t think twice about people who are openly, even proudly, gay. And we are no longer shocked by people who chose to cross-dress, or people who redefine their gender identification, or gay couples who elect to raise children, or even people who choose to undergo sex-change operations.
Given this rapid and extensive social change, I sometimes ask myself just why this particular legal case remains so present in my thoughts. The answer, I am convinced, is because it never was a case about homosexuality. Shi Pei Pu was right—it was a case about love, about the connections people make with others that lie at the very heart of what it means to be human. It was a case about how important these connections are, and the extremes to which people go to protect them. It was a case about the dire consequences of love lost and disconnection endured. And it became one of the cases that compelled me to write Four Seasons of Loneliness, my humble effort to think through the impact of chronic loneliness on the lives of those who find themselves disconnected and alone.
New to the story of the enigmatic and tragic Shi Pei Pu, the inspiration behind the Broadway musical and film, M. Butterfly? Catch up from the beginning here.
 M. Butterfly, 1993. Directed by David Cronenberg.