Seattle Opera Reinvigorates “Madame Butterfly” With Pomp & Protests

Seattle Opera's Madame Butterfly

Cresendos surge, cultures clash; and hearts break, as only they can do in grand opera.

Seattle Opera opens its 2017-2018 season with perhaps the world’s most beloved opera—“Madame Butterfly,” one of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpieces, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illicaand Giuseppe Giacosa.

This will make Seattle Opera’s (SO) ninth production of Puccini’s classic tale of passion and betrayal, heartache, and honor.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, at the turn of the twentieth century. The elegant narrative recounts the whirlwind romance between a reckless American naval lieutenant playboy, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and a 15-year-old, naive geisha, Cio-Cio-San (pronounced “cho-cho san,’ the Italian word for “butterfly”). He is smitten by her beauty. Urged by Goro, a mercenary matchmaker, Pinkerton weds her, despite the warnings of Sharpless, the American consul. Suzuki, Butterfly’s faithful servant, also has her doubts, but Butterfly is too joyful to listen.

Unfortunately, Pinkerton has no intention remaining true to his vows. He thrives on taking pleasure when and where he finds it. Disowned by her family and bound by tradition and honor, Butterfly alone must face the tragic aftermath when she is abandoned.

The idea for the opera was conceived in London in 1900, when Puccini attended Broadway impresario David Balasco’s one-act play “Madame Butterfly.” The composer was captivated, and wrote to the publisher, “The more I think about Butterfly, the more exited I become. Ah, if only I had it here with me to work on!”

Auckland NEW ZEALAND - 16th April 2013, Dress rehearsal Madame Butterfly

Auckland NEW ZEALAND – 16th April 2013, Dress rehearsal Madame Butterfly

Puccini took inspiration from Balasco’s play (based on John Luther Long’s short story, along with material from Pierre Loti’s novel “Madama Chrysanthème.” Thus, the operatic tale of Cio-Cio-San’s betrayal is born.

This passionate story is audience-favorite. But it wasn’t always so. When “Madame Butterfly” premiered at La Scala in 1904, it was a disaster. There were animal and bird calls, laughter, whistles, hisses and boos from the audience. Music critics were no less hostile. Puccini described it as “a real lynching . . . an orgy of lunatics, drunk on hate.”

But Puccini persevered; he rewrote the opera five times. To offset Pinkerton’s perfidy, Puccini composed an agonized farewell aria, “Addio, fiorito asil,” for Pinkerton to sing, and then he made theatrical changes to give Butterfly both more dignity and a greater isolation It all worked to enhance the final tragedy.

Puccini’s score soars with big, sweeping melodies, Musical highlights include the exquisite “Flower Duet,” Butterfly’s tender arias, and the rapturous love duet “Vogliatemi bene” from Act I, sung by Butterfly and Pinkerton. But the most famous and perhaps most heartwrenching aria is “Un Bel Di Vedremo” (One Beautiful Day), sung by Butterfly, It is the aria that every soprano dreams of singing.

This emotional and demanding aria opens Act II. Butterfly sings of keeping watch for his boat, imagining the day her beloved Pinkerton will return. But as the music soars with her eternal optimism, there is a suggestion of melancholy in Puccini’s music, foreshadowing the ultimate tragedy.

In Puccini’s score, you will also hear strains of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which plays as the American Pinkerton waits for his Japanese bride and again as Butterfly dreams of her American life. There’s a Japanese influence as well. Puccini includes Japanese bells and tam-tams in the orchestra and underscores his vocal line with exotic harmonies. If the music sounds familiar, Butterfly’s music was used in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction.”

Puccini was quite the Pinkerton himself. He loved fast cars and fast women. He was, in fact, a womanizer who had a reputation among the ladies.

He wrote “Madame Butterfly” at a time when his marriage was falling apart, as news of his recent affairs broke. But in spitie of this, the composer himself believed it was his best: “the most heartfelt and evocative opera I have ever conceived”.

Auckland NEW ZEALAND - 16th April 2013, Dress rehearsal Madame Butterfly

Auckland NEW ZEALAND – 16th April 2013, Dress rehearsal Madame Butterfly

Many of Puccini’s operas feature realistically drawn female characters who meet a tragic end, but that of Cio-Cio-San is perhaps the most poignant. Her journey takes her from innocence, trust, and hope, to anguish and tragedy, and ultimately to her fate–her personal code of honor.

SO’s production is sparking controversy. It’s targeted by Asian American critics, denouncing “Butterfly’s” tired, stereotypical, and politically incorrect characters as well as the romanticizing of the story. A true geisha, they emphasize, trains for years, and such a role would never go to an untrained young girl. Realistically, she is more likely to be seen as a sex-trafficked Japanese teenager.

As a result, adjustments have been made. During SO’s run of “Madame Butterfly,” a lobby exhibit, “The Butterfly Effect,” will explore the history of Asians in America. It will also feature the caricatures and stereotypical treatment of Asians in movies, TV, and musical theater. Examples include Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” and Broadway productions of “South Pacific” and “Miss Saigon.”

Moments from Puccini’s original version will be restored. Non-Asian performers will not be wearing “yellow” make-up. Finally, the program will include the fact that 15-year-old Cio-Cio San could not have been a geisha.

That said, keep in mind that opera storylines are musical soap operas, fanciful combinations of imagination, incredible singers, and glorious music. In Puccini’s day, cultural attitudes were different than they are today. And, given the continued battle for women’s rights–no matter her ethnicity–Butterfly’s plight is still relevant. A vulnerable, young woman who falls for a smooth-talking scoundrel, who’s only after a one-night stand.

Soprano Lianna Haroutounian alternates the role of Cio-Cio-San, with soprano Yasko Sato. Tenors Alexey Dolgov and Dominick Chenes alternate as Pinkerton. All four are making their SO debuts.

SO favorite, baritone Weston Hurt, sings Sharpless for all eight performances, as does returning mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier as Suzuki. In a charming bit of casting, Butterfly’s young son, Sorrow, is actually played by twin girls, Scarlet and Hazel Del Rosario, who alternate performances.

Other returnees include three singers who will also perform in all eight productions. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox as Pinkerton’s “other” wife Kate, Baritone Ryan Bede as Prince Yamadori, Butterfly suitor, and baritone Daniel Sumegi as The Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, who is a Buddhist priest.

Australian director Kate Cherry, in her SO debut, helms “Madame Butterfly,” which is conducted by Carlo Monanaro. The creative team also includes Roxanne Foster (choreographer), Christina Smith (production designer), and Matt Scott (lighting designer.)

Cherry promises dazzling visuals, new-to-Seattle sets and costumes, and staging that tips its hat to stylized Japanese theater.

So prepare to weep for “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini understood human nature. He himself once said his success as an opera composer was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls.”

Seattle Opera’s production of “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini runs Aug. 5-19, at McCaw Hall, The opera is performed in Italian with English subtitles. Its running time is approximately 2 hours, 55 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets start at $65 and are available at 206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org.

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About Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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