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San Diego Opera Makes 'Madama Butterfly' Fresh

A scene from San Diego Opera's "Madama Butterfly" and its impressive set design.
J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.
A scene from San Diego Opera's "Madama Butterfly" and its impressive set design.
Behind The Scenes Of San Diego Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'
Behind The Scenes Of San Diego Opera's 'MadameButterfly'
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.

INTRO: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a popular and frequently performed opera. But San Diego Opera’s production promises to find something new. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of this tragic tale of a geisha who marries an American Naval officer in 1904. TAG: San Diego Opera’s Madame Butterfly will be performed tonight and on April 22 and 24.   Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a classic that keeps attracting audiences because they know what they’re going to get: love… unswerving devotion… and ultimately betrayal. But stage director Garnett Bruce also wants to challenge them with something different. GARNETT BRUCE: 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. CLIP LaTonia singing GARNETT BRUCE: Working this time on Madama Butterfly with Latonia Moore, she brings an energy, a courage, to the role, 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. Expectations that are denied by Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the American naval officer she marries. The role is sung by tenor Teodor Ilincai. 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. CLIP Teodor singing Pinkerton misleads Cio-Cio San, the Madame Butterfly of the title, into thinking he’s marrying her out of love. The story focuses on her passionate devotion to him, and she’s the one audiences empathize with. GARNETT BRUCE: 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 many other productions is this one casts two African American women as Cio Cio San and her maid Suzuki. J’Nai Bridges plays Suzuki. J’NAI BRIDGES: 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 imaginations… That’s right because 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, says Bruce. GARNETT BRUCE: Absolutely. 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. CLIP Latonia singing GARNETT BRUCE: … 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. Opera is also about scale. The set for Madame Butterfly delivers on that larger than life sensibility. GARNETT BRUCE: 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. But there’s also a sense of elegant Japanese simplicity says Bridges. J’NAI BRIDGES: 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. So there’s never a dull moment for me. The set is constructed mostly of white scrim that is like a blank canvas that can be painted with light to create a different mood for each scene says Bruce. GARNETT BRUCE: 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 Madame Butterfly serves up the whole package. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

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

Madame Butterfly is the most often performed opera. Last night, KPBS reporter went backstage. Here is a little taste of the music. You are taking on Madame Butterfly which is one of the most popular operas how do you tackle something that has been done so often? There are layers yet to be explored. It could be a familiar tune. But with different people you learn different aspects on -- about the character. That is what the exploration process is during rehearsal. We know that it is a story but what is around it? You have to look at the set and the conductor. We know more about Japan then [Indiscernible] . We can translate our current knowledge into music. [ Music playing ] For people who are not familiar with the opera can you give us a rundown? It is based on a play. There is a moment when Madame. butterfly waits for her husband to return. They are married three years earlier. He does return but he does come back with his American wife. And their marriage was false. And they come to take her child. So she must die with honor. I am working with LaTonya More, will bring such court -- courage to the role. The courage that she has in her vocals and expectations. You can see a moment where she is waiting -- as we all can relate because we all have waited for the telephone to ring or somebody come back. [ Music playing ] You feel for her. She is not reserved as others. She fulfills every moment with music, energy and beauty. Talk about the set that you have and what it looks like. We are working with [Indiscernible] who is from Argentina and has created lots -- layers. Cherry trees usually do not grow up to 40 feet. So I make sure we have visual interest. And sometimes it comes down to just one person. Sometimes there is a shadow that is revealed to us slowly. You talked about how this set takes light itself. We'll talk about that? Basically it is a white blank page. We are able to add levels of color. It could be pastel, red or orange. And that -- the set owns that color. It adjusts to the moods and orchestra. Now you get the visual component. There is a simplicity set. You are not quite sure air -- if you are indoors or outdoors. There is not a lot of other material so you can focus to that character and the relationship with one another. They can go to the foreground or step out of the frame or they can be completely surrounded. So we have a variety. You mentioned that as Americans we knew more about the Japanese citizens what helped you? I saw a production in the last 15 years where it used to be east versus West. We see the after effects when we leave a zone, and there are women and children left behind. This is been with every wore situation -- war situation. So who is the stranger? I think this is more present in our culture today. There is a notion -- having an African-American singer play a Japanese character. Opera is, the voice first. We believe, they seeing the words so well -- sing the world so well. And with the gay sure -- geisha, we asked about [Indiscernible] and we embrace the diversity. I think Puccini would have approved of this evolution. I want the emotion to happen. It is the honesty about the character and how they relate to each other. I think that is the best story. Thank you.

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."

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.