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San Diego Opera Makes ‘Madama Butterfly’ Fresh

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of San Diego Opera's "Madame Butterfly" to see what's new in an old classic.


San Diego Opera Makes 'Madama Butterfly' FreshGUESTS:
Garnett Bruce, stage director, "Madama Butterfly"
Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter


Event: San Diego Opera Presents 'Madama Butterfly'

  • San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue, San Diego
  • Tuesday, April 19, 2016
  • 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Age Requirement: All ages
  • Cost: $45 - $220

Full Event Information

Love, hope and betrayal reach a fateful end in Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" — one of the most popular and most often performed operas. San Diego Opera's production promises to bring something new to the classic.

Stage director Garnett Bruce has worked on previous productions of this beloved opera. But for this production he also wanted to challenge audiences with something different.

"One of the great things about coming back to a masterpiece is that there are layers yet to be explored. So it could be a familiar drive or it’s a familiar tune but when you have different people you learn different things and different aspects about the characters," Bruce said. "Working this time on 'Madama Butterfly' with Latonia Moore, she brings an energy, a courage, to the role, while you see some of that strength in other performances, the courage she has in her vocals and in her expectations, you’ll see a moment when she’s waiting for Pinkerton, we all have that moment when we’re waiting for the phone to ring or somebody to call us back or someone to show up and we’ve been stood up."

The one standing her up is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, sung by tenor Teodor Ilincai.

"I don’t like the character, no one does. It doesn’t matter because the music is so beautiful and someone have to sing it," Ilincai said.

Pinkerton misleads Cio-Cio San into thinking he’s marrying her out of love. The story focuses on her passionate devotion to him.

"You just feel for her and she brings all of that to the forefront so she is not as reserved as other sort of porcelain goddesses but she fulfills every moment of music and text with energy and beauty."

What’s different from some other productions is this one casts two African American women as Cio Cio San and her maid Suzuki.

"I think that opera definitely calls for people to use their imagination. And fortunately San Diego Opera has cast Latonia and I, African American females, clearly we are not Japanese so it forces people to use their imaginations… in the end none of these stories is real so we should be able to use our imagination," Bridges said.

Think about it. This is an opera sung in Italian about a Japanese geisha and an American naval officer. Realism is not what’s first and foremost in anyone’s mind. It’s all about the emotions created by the combination of music and voice.

"Opera has long been a place where the voice is first, and you find the best voice you can and everything else we believe. So whether it is Leotyne Price or Latonia Moore, we are going to believe because they sing, they inhabit the words and the music so well so we suspend everything else," Bruce said. "We’re embracing the diversity we have in our chorus and amongst our society because I think Puccini would have approved that evolution as well. I want the honest emotion to happen. So the honesty is really what’s important to me about the characters and the way that they move and relate to one another cause I think that tells the best story."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.

A scene from San Diego Opera's "Madama Butterfly" and its impressive set design.

Opera is also about scale. The set for "Madama Butterfly" delivers on that sense of scale.

"There are no 25 foot shoji screens in life but we have them on an operatic stage, tress don’t usually grow to 40 feet tall… We have something of the scale of the emotions," Bruce explained.

But there’s also a sense of elegant Japanese simplicity.

"There is a minimalist quality to the set however, there are many panels that are being moved back and forth across the stage and I as the maid, am in charge of a lot of that movement," Bridges said. "So there’s never a dull moment for me."

"The set is basically white scrim and so working from the world of Japanese watercolor you are starting with a blank page and so with our lighting designer we are able to add levels of color... so the set is like a chameleon it changes for the additional moods and emotions that Puccini put in the script when you hear the different textures from the orchestra, which is why you should see and hear an opera in the building, you get both the top and the bottom of the sound wave with the visual component.

In other words, San Diego Opera’s "Madama Butterfly" serves up the whole package.

All performances (in Italian with projected English supertitles) are at the San Diego Civic Theatre, and runs two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.


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