Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Madama Butterfly Matters...

Below is a short "preview" appearing in the current City magazine. Opera Roanoke's stellar cast and production team are currently in rehearsal for our March 18 & 20 performances of Puccini's masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. Over the next couple weeks I will share more about the opera and Opera Roanoke's fully-staged production of it.


One summer night in 1900 London, a 41-year-old Italian, who spoke no English, went to see a new (English) play. This man, who preferred the country to the city, who loved his hunting rifles, who would soon become obsessed with racing cars, was the greatest opera composer alive. The play that inspired Giacomo Puccini that night became the most popular opera in the world, Madama Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly is an archetypal story that is both a relationship drama (a tragic love story) and a cultural one. The “east-meets-west” dynamic has always been vibrant. Consider the word “oriental.” In that single word (noun, adjective, stereotype) is an almost electric current that reminds us how powerful language can be. It also reminds us how important context & perspective are, and how volatile signs & symbols can be (“oriental” carries different meanings today than in Puccini’s time, for example).

Without getting too far afield, a (sensitive) word like “oriental” has enough of a spark to remind us that east-west “relationships” are still charged with energy and dramatic possibility. This potential for drama, emotional depth and catharsis is one of the reasons the Butterfly story is timeless. That this story, with the staying power of mythology and folklore, is best known as an opera tells us something significant about Puccini’s genius. It also opens a window on opera’s unique ability to evoke the entire range of human emotions, from the beautiful to the terrifying. Opera pinpoints these emotions with the concentrated focus of music (wedded to drama, theater and stagecraft) and brings them to life with one-of-a-kind power.

On the surface, Butterfly is a tragedy of lost love. A young Geisha marries a US Naval lieutenant, who leaves her (never having intended to stay), and only returns three years later, his American wife in tow, to claim his and Ms Butterfly’s child. She responds in the only way she knows how (in order to preserve her sacred, family honor): she takes her own life.

This classic, cross-cultural, wartime love story has currency from the ancient world to today, from Homer (Iliad) to Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific). The opera’s abiding appeal resides with Puccini’s heroine, a complex, three-dimensional young woman whose apparent predestined fate never fails to move us. We love Butterfly because our hearts break with--and for—hers. She is an archetypal grieving mother (a variation on the Stabat Mater of Christian iconography). She is at once a self-determining tragic character, a sacrificial victim and a martyr.

And we have one of the world’s most gifted interpreters of Puccini’s heroine for our March production. Yunah Lee has made Butterfly her “signature role.” Opera companies around the world vie for the privilege of presenting Ms Lee’s “commanding and touching performance” consistently praised for “revealing the highs and lows of Madame Butterfly’s emotions.”

Hearing the drama and seeing the music of a great opera come to life before your senses is an experience unlike any other. Opera shares traits with musical theater, the world of “classical” music, and the soundtracks that accompany our movies and TV shows. One of the qualities that make a work of art “great” is its ability to transcend the limitations imposed by the specifics (of setting, situation, etc) to aim for the universal.

You don’t need to know anything about Nagasaki, the US Navy, Italian opera or Japanese tea ceremonies to “get” Madama Butterfly. Opera is special, but you don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate or enjoy it. Just get a ticket, bring a friend, and spend a couple hours with one of the world’s greatest musical stories. Come hear and see for yourself why Madama Butterfly is the most popular opera in the United States.

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