Glimpse of Southwest Completes Bhutanese Visitors’ Experience

By on September 5, 2014

The day after the performance of Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea at UTEP’s Don Haskins Center, members of the international cast and crew from Bhutan, Italy, Canada and the United States sand surfed in the desert and relaxed in the mountains, capping off their weeklong excursion to El Paso.

International cast and crew members from Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea celebrated their successful performance with excursions to White Sands National Monument and Cloudcroft, New Mexico, Sunday, Aug. 31. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Early Sunday morning, Aug. 31, the opera’s world renowned singers, directors and Bhutanese dancers and musicians joined UTEP students from Bhutan on a bus headed to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico for an afternoon of fun in the hot sun.

“We’d like to thank UTEP for all the care and attention they have given to ensure that we not only enjoy our beautiful opera but also that we enjoy the sights of El Paso,” said Kunzang C. Namgyel, Bhutan’s permanent representative to the United Nations. “We know that our relationship between UTEP and Bhutan has expanded from year to year. So much has happened in the last few years. It’s a continuation of that progress.”

Before their early Sunday morning departure to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico for an afternoon of fun in the hot sun, the opera’s world-renowned singers, directors, Bhutanese dancers and musicians received gifts courtesy of the Office of University Relations, including lanyards from UTEP’s HOT (Higher Opportunities Thrive) Summer Conference to remind everyone of White Sands’ scorching temperatures. They also received a UTEP Centennial pin and a UTEP Centennial graduation pin.

“I want to give this (Centennial graduation pin) to you on behalf of our office because we feel you are part of us,” Beto Lopez, the assistant vice president of University Relations, said to a cheering crowd. “You’re going to be honorary Miners.”

Also on the trip were UTEP students from Bhutan. UTEP freshmen Sonam Lhamo and Pema Euden looked forward to sledding down the gypsum sand dunes, an activity His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan enjoyed during his visit to UTEP in 2008.

“We came dressed up for it,” said Lhamo, a physics major. “We thought for the slide, we need to wear pants. We heard our prince, he also slid down. It’s our epic moment.”

After an hour-and-a-half long bus ride, passengers were eager to stretch their legs at the White Sands Trading Gift Shop, where they browsed Native American handicrafts, snacked on pistachios and purchased plastic sleds for downhill sledding on the sand dunes. A trio of Bhutanese flautists surprised shoppers when they began to play Bhutanese folk songs using the shop’s handmade Native American flutes.

As the bus headed toward the heart of the monument, passengers eagerly looked out the windows to catch of glimpse of the glistening white sand spread out for miles before them.

As soon as the bus pulled over, the honorary Miners and UTEP students kicked off their shoes and trudged up the white sand dunes with their sleds.

At the top of the peak, Thomas MacLeay, who played Acis, Galatea’s doomed lover, was the first to jump on a sled and head down the hill. Like the evening before, his performance was followed by cheers.

“I was very happy because you set goals for yourself in a performance and nothing’s ever perfect,” MacLeay said, referring to his role as Acis in the opera. “When you strive for perfection, the thing that keeps you sane is to aim for certain goals, and when you realize them, it’s a nice feeling. Last night was a night like that where 10 or a dozen things that I really wanted to go well went well.”

Visitors hooted and hollered as they took turns sledding down the slope. Some laid flat on their backs while others rode two to a sled.

Stage manager Bryce Bullock used the sled as a surfboard. Instead of catching a wave, the California native rode down the dune with his feet planted on the sled.

“It was fun, it was good,” said Bullock, whose wide-brim sun hat stayed firmly on his head. “You have to find the right balance and try to not fall and put your face in the sand.”

The blazing sun eventually wiped out most of the sledders and it was time for them to head up the mountain to Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The cool mountain air offered a nice respite from the heat.

For Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, who played Galatea, the trip signified the end to a fantastic experience.

Mazzulli traveled to Thimphu, Bhutan, last year where the opera made its debut on Oct. 12, 2013. It was the first time a Western opera was performed in the Himalayan kingdom. Since then, Mazzulli and the cast and crew, which featured a chorus and orchestra made up of UTEP students and faculty, had been prepping for the production’s U.S. premiere. The international cast arrived in El Paso Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, for rehearsals.

“This was the end of a big project so it was also a little bit sad at the end,” Mazzulli said. “When I was looking to the students, I was almost crying at the end. They were crying as well. It was hard to finish the opera. But every experience has to finish. We have to say bye-bye and hope that we can see each other again in the future. With some it will happen for sure because we’re coming from Italy. Many of us will see each other. But with others from America, from Canada, it would be difficult.”

Published 9/5/14 at

Posted in: Opera Bhutan, Summaries

Laura Acosta is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.