On Friday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 23, the Madison Opera, in its 48th season, presents a production of one of Giacomo Puccini’s most popular accounts of love and death, “Madama Butterfly.“ Written at the turn of the 20th century, the Madison Opera is celebrating Puccini’s 150th birthday with this production that garners the title of being the No. 1 most-performed opera in America.
Having also written “La Boh?me,” which serves loosely as the basis for Broadway’s “Rent,” Puccini is no stranger to American theater and has indeed contributed a large part to popular artistic conventions.
“Madama Butterfly” is a story about the young Japanese woman Cio-Cio San, or Madama Butterfly, whose marriage to naval lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton is complicated by her renunciation of Japanese culture and religion in order to marry him. The plot is complicated further when Pinkerton decides to leave for America and remarry despite his own declarations of love, a decision Butterfly never suspects of her beloved husband. Butterfly, under the impression he will return joyfully to be with her one day, does not divulge information regarding their child conceived prior to his departure and spends the three years of his absence pining for him. Once Pinkerton returns, he arrives with his American wife, Kate, to whom Madama Butterfly decides to relinquish her daughter. Faced with a life without her adored naval husband and child, Madama Butterfly commits suicide.
The play raises questions about American imperialist, hegemonic traditions as well as a woman’s role in Japanese or American societies during Puccini’s time. But what makes “Butterfly” a crowd pleaser is the varying relationships to these themes as well as the incredibly moving musical representation of such complex emotion.
The production’s stage design is a result of world-renowned ceramic artist Jun Kaneko’s startlingly inspired vision that has reinvented a historically acclaimed performance. Madison Opera’s general director Allan Naplan said this is the most compelling reason to come see “Butterfly.”
“This is not your grandmother’s opera,” Naplan said.
Naplan emphasized the fresh approach to “Butterfly” that an audience unfamiliar with operatic conventions, like an entirely Italian libretto or modes of communication via passionate, voluminous singing, would really appreciate.
“This is very new, cutting-edge theater. The sets and costumes are truly spectacular. There are bold colors and geometric shapes,” Naplan added, making the mere spectacle of this production alluring.
Also unique about this performance is guest conductor Leonardo Vordoni, an up-and-coming Italian visionary who Naplan emphasized as a vital component to this production.
“He is someone that there is a lot of buzz about right now. He’s very young, getting a lot of good press. … We were able to get him first. This will be his first American professional conducting debut.”
It is clear Vordoni’s authentic, Italian contribution to Kaneko’s similarly genuine, creative stage design is an energetic combination of Italian, Japanese and American influences.
While “Butterfly” is a performance not necessarily intended to pose questions of multiculturalism, it is these diverse design and conducting efforts, as well as Naplan’s concerted attempt to involve some of the best talent available, that will make “Butterfly” a must-see for music and theater lovers of all backgrounds who want to explore these complicated questions of propriety, family and love.
Performing as Cio-Cio San is soprano Maria Kanyova, who debuted in Puccini’s “La Boh?me” as Mimi at New York City Opera. Her experience in multiple esteemed operas in addition to her title role in “Madama Butterfly” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera make her a prime vehicle for Butterfly’s tragic story. Joining Kanyova will be tenor Arnold Rawls as Lt. Pinkerton, mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, and baritone Grant Youngblood as the United States’ consul, Sharpless.
“Madama Butterfly” runs at the Overture Center for the Arts on Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Student discounts of 50 percent off original ticket prices are available.