Pacific Opera Project 2018-19 Review: Madama Butterfly
A Revelatory Experiment With One Of Puccini’ Greatest WorksBy Gordon Williams
Twice on Saturday night at the opening of Pacific Opera Project’s “Madam Butterfly” at the Aratani Theatre in LA’s Little Tokyo I thought, “This could be the start of something big.” “Thought One” related to the production; “Thought Two” to a singer.
But first, let’s discuss the elephant in the room.
Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” has excited controversy over questions of cultural stereotyping from the very earliest stages of its creation in the 1900s. The opera, based on a short story by John Luther Long and a play by David Belasco, ostensibly sympathizes with the 15 year-old Japanese, Butterfly, who believes the US naval captain Pinkerton is serious in his intention to marry her even though he is actually treating her as one of the girls he has in every port and blithely disregarding cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in their understanding of the situation.
We are certainly not meant to side with Pinkerton – or certainly not, once we listen past his heroic melodies to his words, to the way he salivates over the impermanence of contracts in this newly-opened Meiji Japan, where wives are as disposable as houses. That said, charges of cultural stereotyping remain and while it seems that Puccini’s original librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, were awake to some of them – Giacosa hotly objected to Puccini’s removal of a scene in the second act that Illica had set in the US consulate in order to highlight Japanese and Western differences – it’s been left to subsequent interpreters to deal with this problem of the representation of Japanese.
There have been various measures over the years. A Seattle Opera production back in 2017 reinstated lines that, in the words of “The Seattle Times,” underscored “the power imbalance between Japanese and American cultures at the heart of the doomed love affair.. The company’s program booklet emphasized why Butterfly could not have been a geisha. And they hosted a panel discussion of Asian-American voices in response to the opera. I even remember a Ken Russell production in Melbourne in the 1980s where a searing blast of light hit audience-members in their faces on the last chord, a reminder that Nagasaki, where the opera is set, was the target for America’s second Atom Bomb drop in 1945.
A Big Response
So Pacific Opera Project (POP), in a co-production with Houston’s Opera in the Heights, does something really striking – a production in Japanese and English, the mix of languages the characters would have spoken, played by an ethnically-appropriate cast. I understand this has long been a dream of POP’s Executive and Artistic Director and director/designer of this show, Josh Shaw; and the libretto, written by Shaw and Opera in the Height’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Eiki Isomura, is worthy fulfillment of that dream.
For me, it was a revelation. I found myself focusing on parts of the opera I had paid less attention to, in the past. Characters I had previously considered as supporting roles became more vivid. I’m thinking particularly of Goro, whose self-appointed role as an intermediary between the cultures came alive (assisted by tenor Eiji Miura’s beautifully-lyrical rendering of the part); Butterfly’s maid Suzuki (the authenticity of her lines in Japanese complementing mezzo Kimberly Sogioka’s vocal strength); and a new perspective I gained on Prince Yamadori’s quandary. Yes, the older man (played by Steve Moritsugu) wants a young wife but when he huddled downstage with Goro and the American consul Sharpless (Kenneth Stavert), I could really feel that their individual wishes rose to an overriding concern for Butterfly’s immovable faith in Pinkerton who has not returned, as promised, when the robins nest.
I love that Pacific Opera Project refreshes opera from the words up. I’m not a Japanese speaker but the Japanese portions of the text sounded beautifully singable to me, and the English sounded perfectly natural. Moments that stood out include the rhyme that brought together Pinkerton’s and Sharpless’ differing viewpoints in Act one – “Then I’ll let her fly”/ “You’ll kill Butterfly.” I was moved by the occasions when the bilingual characters switched from one language to the other – Goro’s English, Sharpless’s Japanese. Most of all, I felt that Butterfly gained a dimension of self-agency through being allowed to sing in her own language. It counteracted the original libretto’s desire to convey her “littleness.”
I understand that POP and Opera in the Heights spent a lot of time in casting this, POP’s most ambitious production so far, and that’s paid off.
As Pinkerton, tenor Peter Lake may not have flaunted the over-blown cockiness of the American “vagabond” dropping anchor anywhere he likes in the world, but there was something in his restraint which suggested a believable heedlessness. His love duet with Butterfly was high temperature and the aria known in Italian as “Addio, fiorito asil” conveyed a self-reproach that nevertheless, appropriately, we could not sympathize with.
Incidentally, it was during the love duet, that I truly noticed the quality of the orchestra. I thought, “This has got so much sweep and yet the orchestra is essentially the size of a pit band.” After all, the strings would have been around one-third the size of the string section that a bigger company could afford, and yet most of the time everything sounded well-rounded and proportional, a credit to conductor/co-librettist Eiki Isomura.
My favorite character in “Butterfly,” however, has always been Sharpless who knows exactly what’s going on and the shape of the disaster that is coming despite being constrained by the conventionsof the boys’ club. That is, of course, until that wonderful moment in Act three when he drops the parlando and launches into melody “Io so che alle sue pene,” beautifully rendered here by Shaw and Isomura’s “For her I know there will be little comfort.” Sharpless was performed by Kenneth Stavert and I looked forward to his every entrance from the moment he complained offstage about the climb up the hill to Butterfly’s house to Act three’s barely contained, hissing “I told you so-s.”
Keiko Clark was originally to have sung Butterfly on opening night, but Janet Todd stepped in at short notice. An Australian who has recently completed her Master of Music at the Manhattan School of Music and is now based in Los Angeles, she is one of the show’s big news items. She sang “off-book” and in Japanese, despite being offered less scary options, but over and above that really inhabited her part. I have to admit that I was so carried away by the drama of this production that I tended to forget that there were stand-alone musical highlights.
But, of course, “One Fine Day,” in which Butterfly visualizes the day of Pinkerton’s return, is one of them. Todd shaped it beautifully – in general she had a lovely way of tapering phrases elegantly – and there was a convincing sense of bravery smiling through the anxious furrowed brow as her vision became harder to hold onto. I couldn’t help thinking, as a result, that this was one of those opportunities for the understudy that creates a huge boost to a person’s career.
All in all, I found this a very moving production. The word that occurred to me when the chorus (essentially the South Bay Singers) entered was “celestial.” Is that a compliment in light of a production trying to invest this story with greater reality? I hope so, and I hope the Singers and chorus master Naoko Suga take it that way. I was touched. But so too, often, I was enlightened. I can’t think of another production of “Butterfly” where I was so struck by the name of Pinkerton’s ship when it returned: that of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
This was an immense undertaking. I noted in the program an advisory committee comprising representatives of the East West Players, USC, Diversity in American Theater, and an ethnomusicologist. There was also an “army” downstairs, according to Josh Shaw in introductory remarks before the curtain, dressing everybody in Sueko Oshimoto’s brilliant costumes.
It’s hard for me to be sure of audience reaction in the Aratani Theatre but it seemed that people (including women in kimonos) appreciated Shaw’s welcome in Japanese and there was that moment in Act three when Pinkerton returned with his American wife, and several people in the audience took in a sharp breath.
This production goes to Houston later in the month and this is the second big thing I want to say: it could go on from there and much further.