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Old and New Visions of Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini’s iconic work Madama Butterfly has long been a staple of what people think of as “opera.” Most have heard of it, mostly due to the universal story of love lost in translation, female abandonment, and tragic consequences.  

Butterfly was attractive from the time of its premiere in 1904 because of its exoticism to western audiences. At the time “Japonisme,” the act of dressing up and doing tasks that were “Japanese,” was a fad in Europe after Asian ports opened up for trade late in the 19thcentury: the culture was different and, therefore, exotic. Travel to Asia was much too grueling and expensive if one wanted to experience it for oneself, so pictures, literature, and textiles provided the dream.

Performing Butterfly in the 21st century is influenced by a globalized sensitivity to other cultures and beliefs. Travel is easy. The Internet gives us answers. Television transports us. The imagined Japanese setting as seen by Puccini (who never went there) is a device from 1904 about something that happened “over there.” It is a far cry from our reality. To dress up as if for a pageant and smear on eyeliner to make someone “appear” Asian should most definitely be a practice of the past, and yet some opera companies continue do it in the name of what audiences “want” from the work.  

The production I’m currently directing for Opera Columbus combines the world of 19th century Japan with contemporary couture, views of race/religion, and the effect of clothing/behavior. The costumes are meant to evoke the proper lines and silhouettes of kimono and uniforms through a uniquevisual interpretation, connecting ageless emotion with a contemporary audience. There was no attention paid to race or ethnicity when rounding up the best singers possible for this particular production.

There is every reason to continue to produce Madama Butterfly, but keeping it in its early 20th century box does not gives it proper reverence. We owe it our fullest and most careful attention so that it may continue to ring across changing times in all of its beauty and sadness.

Expansion and growth

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There comes a moment in life that begs for clarity. The life of a freelancer has its challenges and its joys. After doing it for over a decade I’ve asked myself questions about my next chapters. The answer is found in continuing to learn, to move forward in an area that I crave to explore. I worked behind a camera for six weeks and discovered new parts of myself I didn’t even know existed. It was liberating and also forced me to stay present, mindful and open for all of those days. Now I am back in the opera rehearsal room with new purpose and energy, craving to unveil more about myself and what my work can become. It’s exciting and inspiring.

The simple pleasures of the almost-countryside

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The best part about being on the road is seeing new places and meeting new people. I’m currently directing Puccini’s Il Tabarro  and Suor Angelica at Opera Delaware as part of the Puccini festival. Like some other experiences I’ve had, I’m staying as a guest of a lovely couple in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Wilmington. Commuting to and from this idyllic country-like setting has a feeling of escape to it. After a day’s work of collaborating with artists and designers I come “home” to silence, to trees, to solace, and, more often than not, a nice meal and a glass of wine thanks to the couple’s generosity. I have all of the privileges of access to many markets and shops that you could find in just about any American suburb. A highlight, however, is a weekend Amish market full of fresh food. The hustle and bustle of cities is exciting, but the simple pleasures of a warm home surrounded by nature provides an artist’s retreat and therefore allows for moments of reflection and relaxation. No wonder I always feel fresh when I go back to the rehearsal hall the next day. 

Putting up a show

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This morning in Boston we are writing light cues for my production of Albert Herring, an opera by mid-century composer Benjamin Britten. Later today we have two onstage rehearsals with a cast of 13, 8 of whom are double cast. We are creating a whimsical production that emphasizes the trapped nature of Albert’s existence and his longing for freedom. The nature of humanity is seen, dimly until the opera’s conclusion, in the distance. The production is designed and executed by students from the theatre department at Boston University and their professionalism has been most impressive. The opera students are working hard on their characterizations and are top notch singers. We open on February 7 for four performances. Be sure to join us!