Madama Butterfly edition of
Playbill, we asked writer Mark Ketterson to give us some thoughts on the fascination the West has for the East, and how that plays itself out in Puccini's greatest opera.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
has long been regarded as one of the most beloved works in the standard repertory. Valued by music lovers everywhere for its wealth of melody and poignant, heart-on the-sleeve emotionality, the opera’s history hints at something greater than mere aural beauty and sentiment and provides a revealing chapter in an ever-evolving chronicle of “East meets West.”
Artistic influence from the East, or what is loosely referred to as “Orientalism,” was evident in Europe for centuries as imaginative souls wove the flavors and images of exotic, faraway lands (both real and conjectured) into their creations. As opportunities for travel became more available in the mid-19th century, artists made journeys to northern Africa, India, and western Asia; they later expanded their explorations to the Pacific and what westerners came to call the “Far East.” Continue reading on the WNO website.
There are three more performances of Madama Butterfly
- March 14, 17m, and 19.
Director Ron Daniels
Director Ron Daniels
is making his WNO debut this season with the production of Madama Butterfly
In a presentation for artists and staff, he described his first encounter with opera 15 years ago as "a young man’s first awkward and uncomfortable love-making experience." Now, it is the love of his life. “Every time, it’s new. There’s a living, organic invention to it.”
Director Daniels’ fascination with the Japanese and American “cultural flux” of the opera molds his vision for this year’s Madama Butterfly
. He spoke with us earlier to do a Q&A about his approach to Butterfly
, and the central elements of the design.
When you first approached Butterfly 15 years ago, it was only the second opera you directed. How was it different than working in theater?
It doesn’t seem to me to be very different. What we do, essentially, is tell stories, and they can be told with or without music. The major difference is that when you’re working in the theater, the director and actors have to set the tempo of every moment, without any guidance. They have to invent what seems right for that moment for the story and the characters. It’s different in opera, because the music is telling you what to do. So as a director, I need to listen and let the music dictate what happens.
What are the challenges in directing an opera that is so well known?
What I say to my singers and actors when I’m doing work in the general canon is that we must pretend that this piece has never been done before. This has just arrived on our desk, and we are privileged to be looking at an entirely new work. What do we think about it, how do we feel about it, how does it affect us personally? And it doesn’t matter what has come before, how many productions there were, we have to respond as authentically as we can to the material so that the audience may see something completely new in it.
The character of Butterfly is seen often as a tragic figure, but also as a strong one—do you see more of one or the other?
I don’t see any contradiction between tragic and strong. I think she is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and is immensely resolute. Her perseverance against all odds is astonishing. And even though she is in despair in the end, it is not out of sadness that she kills herself. It is an act of extreme bravery and immense generosity, to set her son completely free, so that he can become the American she had wanted to be.
Is there a central element to the design?
The design in many ways is the house—this antique Japanese house we built that is essentially the stage. The changes in the scenery reflect the mood, the story, and the music of the opera. The screens especially—the movement of the screens gives the house a language of its own. They need to move in a dance, with the music. They are moved by the kuroko, these people dressed all in black, and are supposed to be invisible to the audience. If one of the characters needs a prop, the kuroko bring it to them.
The opera’s about a young American, a kid who’s travelling the world, thinking the world is his oyster. And so the first thing we see is that he has gone down to the local market and he has bought a bed, and put it in this Japanese house…he’s not going to sleep on the floor as the Japanese do. There is this interface of cultures, where the American boy is trying to have an American life, even though he is in Japan.
The Japanese girl also wants to become an American—later on, Butterfly decorates the walls of her house with the English vocabulary that she is teaching her son—it comes out of a book called The Japanese Gentleman’s Guide to Travelling Abroad. She’s surrounded herself with the language of America.
But really, with all the Japanese elements, the delicate details, and even her fascination with America, it is at the center an Italian opera—gorgeous, romantic, and emotionally very generous. I hope the audience is moved by it.
What do Puccini’s opera and punk rock band Sex Pistols have in common? Yeah…we didn’t know either.
The answer is: rock impresario, Malcolm McLaren. McLaren was the infamous former manager responsible for the Sex Pistols. He was an art school drop out, punk fashionista, lover of British designer Vivienne Westwood and musician.
After a rough ride with the band in the late ‘70s, McLaren dabbled in making his own music, which included an electro-opera album titled Fans
released in 1984. From this album came his hit single, “Madame Butterfly (Un Bel Di Vedremo).”
What do you guys think about this funky interpretation of Puccini’s opera?
NOTE: We thought the original video was a bit too creepy to embed, but you can watch it here
John Luther Long
was born in Pennsylvania, 1861. Originally a lawyer by trade, Mr. Long was also an author, writing short stories, poems and plays. Much of his writing was romantic, and also many took place in the “Orient,” though Long himself never went there--all the details of his stories set in Japan were based on his sister’s experiences as the wife of a missionary.
His most famous and successful work is a novella called "Madame Butterfly," which was published in Century
magazine in their January issue in 1898.
Later this short novella would be adapted into a play with the help of playwright David Belasco and then seen by Giacomo Puccini. And the rest, as they say, is operatic history.
The full text of Long's story
(and in fact, an extensive archive of Century magazine
) is available from the Making Of America archives
at Cornell University.
Alexey Dolgov as Pinkerton and Catherine Naglestad as Madama Butterfly - cr. Scott Suchman for WNO
Opening night of WNO’s Madama Butterfly
was a great success on Saturday. Thank you to everyone who attended and experienced the magic. Here’s what some of the reviews are saying: The Washington Post
called the performance:
The Washington Times
- “meltingly beautiful”
- “... a fine "Butterfly," with plenty of promise to come”
gave Saturday’s production four stars and described it as:
The Baltimore Sun
- “a stunningly elegant, heart-rending production”
credited WNO’s Madama Butterfly
- “…a most involving night at the opera”
- “expressive vocal power, affectingly detailed acting, abundant visual interest, deeply involved conducting, and a lot of lush sounds from the orchestra.”
This is only the beginning of run of wonderful performances to come. Madama Butterfly
will be in the Kennedy Center Opera House until March 19.
A flutist turned opera singer, Arkansas-native Sarah Mesko joins us this year in her first season with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Sarah has performed roles in Ariadne auf Naxos, Rinaldo, Armide
, among others. You may have heard her earlier this season at the Opera Look-In or the Young Artist Halloween concert at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage (you can watch her sing "Non più mesta" from La Cenerentola
You can see Sarah this spring when she sings the role of Suzuki in the Young Artist performance of Madama Butterfly
on March 15th. Can’t wait till then? Take a moment to get to know Sarah as she shares with us her accidental discovery as a singer and why she loves Freddie Mercury
. Who or what is your musical inspiration, and why?
I would have to say Freddie Mercury. I think he is the most dynamic, passionate singer I have ever heard. In the opera world, I am inspired a lot by Sarah Connolly, a British mezzo-soprano. She did a production of Giulio Cesare
at Glyndebourne in 2005 that seriously changed my life. I saw her do that and I thought, “I have to do the same thing.” Favorite character from an opera, and why?
I really love Carmen as a character because you can play her so many different ways. She’s a very complex woman. I think the most interesting character is Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia
. Often times, he is played as pure evil because he obviously does an evil deed, but I think there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. What drives a man to violence is actually more interesting than violence itself. When did you know you wanted to be a singer?
This is really a funny story. When I was 18, I played the flute. In college, I was actually a double degree in flute and vocal performance. All throughout high school, I was a competitive flutist but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go to college. The directors of a music festival in my hometown agreed to hear me play and helped advise me on colleges. I went to their office and played for them. On my way back to my car, I was singing a Debussy song to myself that I had learned in one of my voice lessons a couple years earlier. When I got home, there was a message on the answering machine. Apparently, the director’s administrative assistant had had her window open and heard me sing. She must have told the director, because the message at home said, “You didn’t tell us you could sing too!” I went back and sang for them and they offered me a role in their summer opera—they needed a third lady for The Magic Flute
. I had never acted in a musical before, or an opera…I had never even seen an opera live until the one I was in. I was hooked from then on. What is something you think most people don’t know about opera singers, but that they should:
Because we’re part of an industry that revolves around this great and noble art, a lot of people imagine we are always going around listening to nothing but opera. Frankly, we're not all necessarily great and noble all of the time. We’re like everyone else. We like to go out and drink beer, and listen to other music, like rap or pop. I think that would actually surprise a lot of people who go to the opera and see us on stage portraying these often serious characters. If you hadn’t pursued singing, what career path might you have followed? Or what do you think you would be doing if you weren’t singing?
I guess if I needed an immediate job, in case I couldn’t sing, then I would probably teach flute. I loved teaching the flute prior to becoming a singer. Also, I really love English grammar, and would love to teach grammar to high school kids. I’m also very fond of languages, so if I couldn’t sing anymore I would probably be a diction coach for singers as well.
is one of the world's most beloved operas. It's also an excellent choice for someone who might not be familiar with opera, since it combines many of the best and most familiar traits of the art form—poignant drama, exquisite music, and a tragic ending.
The ticket mailings included this brief guide to Madama Butterfly,
describing the characters, plot, key musical and historical moments, and a few tips for attending the opera. You can read it full screen by clicking below, or download the guide
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Then, March 15, the big event - the Young Artist performance of Madama Butterfly
, conducted by Maestro Plácido Domingo.
Over the next weeks we'll be spotlighting several of the young artists and getting to know them a little better. Any guesses of which one
was in a rock band? Find out tomorrow...
We have two incredible sopranos sharing the role of Cio-Cio-San in our upcoming production of Madama Butterfly. We spoke with Catherine Naglestad and Ana María Martínez about approaching a new role, their perspectives on Butterfly, and favorite moments from the opera. Yesterday we heard from Ms. Naglestad, now we hear from, Ms. Martínez, who recently performed the role with Houston Grand Opera, and is returning to WNO after 10 years. You just made your Cio-Cio-San role debut in Houston . How do you prepare to sing a new role?
Soprano Ana Maria Martinez - cr. Tom Specht
The nuts and bolts of it are getting acquainted with the score – you take it to your coaches, you are exposed to several recordings, you want to hear the singers you admire most performing the role. You try and go to performances…luckily with Butterfly it’s one of the most iconic pieces in the repertoire, so you have many chances to be exposed to it.
Physically, the body language of Cio-Cio-San, particularly in Act I, was important for me to grasp. You have to understand the formality, and the restraint in how they express themselves—how the characters contain how they express their emotions, which you can access better when you start to move more like someone in that time and that culture. Is it harder to approach an opera that is so iconic?
It can be – I was blessed to do it first with stage director Michael Grandage. And he said that we must approach this as if it was the first time it was being done. That even this opera, it too had its world premiere. So we must address it that way, and we must perform it for those in the audience who are seeing it for the first time. So every emotion has to be very honest, and everything had to be very real, and not taken for granted. What’s it like approaching the role the second time?
I love getting to do it so quickly…I would say for an iconic piece, I had such expectations, of what the sound should be—everyone has what they want to see, what they want to hear, what they want to experience. But having done it already, and knowing “ok, I can do this,” I can start to play a little bit more. How do you see the character of Butterfly?
Some might call her a hopeless romantic, I call her a hopeful romantic—she’s ever optimistic. But there’s also that part of her that’s quite severe, which leads her to the decision she makes in the end.
I identify with her with her naive outlook about falling in love. I think I’ll always have that. It made me suffer tremendously as a teenager.
And of course I can identify with her as a mother—I have a son, and he’s three, almost four. I feel that when she does make her decision to take her life. It’s not only because she can no longer live with honor, so she must die with honor, but also because I truly feel she wants to make sure that the son never feels guilt that his mother is still in Japan, and feeling that pull towards her. I also think she couldn’t face the world without him.
When I was first learning I would cry in every coaching. And when I got to staging rehearsals I asked the director—how do I get through this without crying? And he said that I just had to work through the emotions.
As the interpreter, I’m so aware of what’s happening to her, and what’s going to happen. And only through running it beginning to end several times could I really step into her shoes and not know what was happening until the next moment, and really be her. But it was really hard. Your son’s coming with you to DC - what are you looking forward to doing here?
I want him to see some of the opera house – I like him to see that, so that he understands a little bit what mommy does. But I also want to take him to museums, and the monuments, and get a sense of Washington. And I really hope that it will be a big learning experience for him, something that he’ll remember.
And snow – he’s very much looking forward to snow! He’s counting on it – I got him his snow boots and his down jacket, and so he’s ready to go. Do you have a favorite moment from Butterfly?
One of the most amazing moments is in Act II, when Sharpless is reading the letter from Pinkerton to Butterfly. She assumes that what is coming up in the letter is that he is coming back, so she’s so excited. But then Sharpless says, “Miss Butterfly, what would you do if I told you he was never coming back?”
And you hear this “bum” from the orchestra, and then silence. And you can feel the blood draining from her face. And that moment divides the opera. At that moment in the score, you really see the woman, the warrior.
It’s also part of what helped me get through the role, and sing the last aria to the child, and do the motion where she takes her own life. Seeing that warrior, the birth of the samurai in her. When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?
I always knew I loved singing, but I think the turning point for me was in high school, when I was 15. My school did a musical, Oklahoma!
, and they cast me in the female lead. I’d never found my own niche, until I found performing. It sounds like a pun, but I think I found my voice, as a human being, that this was what my calling was. What do you listen to, when you’re not listening to opera? What’s on your iPod?
I rarely listen to opera, because it feels like work!
Lately I was listing to my R&B mix, where I have a lot of Stevie Wonder—I just think he’s so amazing, constantly inspiring.
I like listening to Latin music as well—I love a band called Tiempo Libre
– they have an album that’s called Bach in Havana
and they took the Bach themes and preludes and set it to their timba sound. Everyone should have that album.
I love Norah Jones
, and I discovered recently, I love Ormara Portundo
. She sang with the Buena Vista Social Club, and I saw her in concert live a few months ago, she was turning 80, and it blew me away.
And her guitarist, from Brazil, his name is Swami Jr.
And he has the most beautiful Brazilian Jazz CD, which I don’t think you can get in the States. It’s been 10 years since you were last here, singing Liù in Turandot– what are you looking forward to, being back?
I just remember such a warm feeling with the company – such a supportive, nurturing feeling, and making great music with amazing colleagues.
It always feels like a family reunion, because opera is such a small world, and we’re all gypsies, on the road a lot. And it’s hard, but then you realize that these are your brothers and sisters. And you’re home.
~~Recordings by Ana María Martínez~~