Monday, June 19, 2017

AIDAN LANG INTRODUCES MADAME BUTTERFLY

Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. Puccini’s powerful Madame Butterfly returns to Seattle this August (eight performances, August 5-19). Aidan considers Madame Butterfly Puccini’s greatest tragedy and, in this podcast, explains both its human story and its anti-imperialist indictment of the politics of colonialism.

Hello, everyone! This is Aidan Lang, and here I am again to talk about our summer opera, which is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Madame Butterfly is, according to those lists of ‘most-performed operas,’ always in the top three most-performed operas in any given year around the world. That’s perfectly understandable: it has everything on the surface which an opera needs. It has romance, it has tragedy, it has incredibly beautiful music, and it’s normally depicted in a very attractive, visually appealing fashion.

Everyone loves Puccini. Puccini’s music, it’s very easy to sit back and let it wash over you. Of course it is glorious music. But he was also a very acute dramatist. Undoubtedly, Puccini’s skill is to manipulate his viewer to come to exactly the emotional response that he wants. He leaves very little room for ambiguity compared to, say, Mozart. Mozart’s great operas are full of choices and decisions and can go in many, many different directions. We’re doing Così fan tutte later this season, and if ever there was an opera which can go in multiple directions, it’s Così fan tutte. Puccini, generally speaking, not so. But as I say, Puccini was much more acute as a dramatist than I think he’s given credit for.

Let’s look at Madame Butterfly for a moment in the context of the three operas he wrote with Illica and Giacosa, that is La bohème, Tosca, and Butterfly: they’re all very different pieces, but it’s worth thinking for a moment, how the audience goes on a different emotional journey with each of them. Tosca is essentially a thriller. In an awful way, we enjoy the pain, the suffering, the fact that death is just around the corner (and probably feel a bit guilty for doing so). It works in exactly the same way that we respond to a thriller, today.

Now, La bohème for me is not a tragedy, in the formal sense of the word. La bohème is a story in which circumstance causes Mimì’s demise. She is sick with tuberculosis; she can do nothing about that. Yes, you could take a socio-economic viewpoint and say, it’s the poverty which causes her death, and causes the conditions in which she lives; but I don’t think you can really mount a production around that concept! Fundamentally, she’s doomed to die because she’s sick. It’s very, very sad. But formally, it’s not a tragedy. Tragedies are formed by human decision and human behavior. So, of the three of them, I would hold that Madame Butterfly is the one which has a true tragic nature. She is deceived; but she makes a decision which is her undoing.

We the audience know at the very beginning of the piece, when we meet Pinkerton and the Consul, Sharpless; we know right from the start that Pinkerton has no intention of making this a permanent arrangement. The entire drama is framed by that moment. Butterfly takes a very different viewpoint. She believes everything that Pinkerton has told her. She misunderstands his cruel jape about the robins, that he’ll be back when the robins return to the nest. She’s innocent, and she sticks to her belief in the love which Pinkerton has shown her for a very brief moment. Every other character in Act Two in some way advises her to be pragmatic and to forget: Goro, the marriage broker; she’s visited by Prince Yamadori, the suitor; Sharpless, the Consul, tries in his weak way to turn her around; and one suspects that Suzuki, her servant, has said this many times in the past (although she doesn’t do so in the opera). But Butterfly sticks to her guns, and is ultimately undone by not only the actions and behavior of Pinkerton, but also by her misguided belief in his honor. Honor is of course the operative word, and in the final scene she returns to the customs of her own people and takes her own life. Indeed, on the dagger, her father’s dagger, is engraved “It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor.”

So to return to the tragic rhythm of the piece, Butterfly makes a conscious decision, in between Acts One and Two, while Pinkerton is away, to remain true to an essentially dishonorable man. The nobility she finds at the end, to take her life, I think gives her a genuine tragic status. Yes, she’s a victim of callousness, in the same way Mimì is a victim of illness; but whereas Mimì can do nothing about it, and death is an inevitable consequence of tuberculosis, Butterfly makes a conscious decision, and in her death achieves honor, she achieves nobility, and our response is more than just sadness at her death. It’s a response of respect and understanding, and as such I think that’s why for me, Butterfly is the one of the three great Puccini operas which might be termed a genuine tragedy.

Now, Butterfly is an opera I remember seeing when I was relatively young, in a standard version. But the production with which I can say I grew up is one I first saw when I was a student, in Birmingham, in the UK, given by the Welsh National Opera. What was unusual about this production is that it played the hard-hitting first version of the opera. So what am I talking about here? I’m talking about a piece which was changed radically between its disastrous premiere, its one-night stand in Milan, in February of 1904, and the version which is commonly performed today.

The director of the [WNO] production, Joachim Herz, was one of the great East German directors whose work became available to the West in the 1970s. This production in fact had originated in the Komische Oper in Berlin, ten or twelve years before the fall of the Berlin wall, and then Welsh National Opera put it in their repertoire in the late ‘70s, and it remained there for about 30 years. I worked at Welsh National Opera between 1985 and 1990, and we had it on our stage many, many times. I saw it since, about ten years ago, with Nuccia Focile, our beloved soprano who’s sung so many times here at Seattle Opera. So, what was different about it? Well, it presented the opera as Puccini originally wrote it, before the piece got changed radically over the course of the next two years.

Madame Butterfly had a disastrous one-night stand premiere at La Scala; it was booed, and Puccini set about making a number of revisions. What did the audience not like about it? Well, basically, they found some of the scenes a bit long; they found the second act hugely long; and above all, they hated the fact that the tenor was a deeply unpleasant character. In other words, the opera didn’t suit the expectations of an Italian, early twentieth-century audience. So what Puccini did, he turned the long second act into two separate acts, so it became a three-act opera; he gave the tenor an aria of remorse at the end, to soften his character; and he (and I think wisely) cut some of the longer sequences within the wedding scene in Act One, and I have to say I think the cuts he made are no loss. Certainly Act One, in the original version, does outstay its welcome a little bit.

This production stayed with me because what I saw was an incredibly hard-hitting piece; uncompromising in the way it portrays the arrogant, imperialist attitudes to the Japanese people as exemplified by Pinkerton. Once I’d entered the profession, I always saw it performed it in what’s known as the standard version, the version which Puccini (or rather, his publisher Ricordi) settled on after performances in Paris in 1906. There’s no doubt about it: it’s not the same. It’s much softer. So what we’re doing here in this production at Seattle Opera: we’re not doing the 1904 original version in its entireity, but we have inserted a couple little moments which remind one how tough a piece this is.

For example, to take a small thing at the very end of the opera, we meet Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate Pinkerton. Now, in the original, she’s come with one purpose in mind: to take away that child. She’s unsparing in her cruelty, really, to Butterfly, whom she considers like a plaything. In the Paris version—and this is the version which is now accepted as the ‘standard’ version—her part is reduced to almost nothing, and lines which were allocated to her are given to the Consul, Sharpless. She comes across as a rather sympathetic character, who’s blameless and there to give a bit of moral support to Butterfly. That’s not what Puccini intended. So in our production, we are going to play the original La Scala version of this short scene, because it reminds us, at the very end, of the essential conflict which lies at the heart of this piece.

The genesis of this piece is very interesting. It started with a short story written by a Frenchman called Pierre Loti, called Madame Chrysanthemum. Loti was a sailor, and his tale in many ways captures the core essence of the story, that is that Americans, or overseas visitors to the treaty ports, coming to have a quick arranged ‘marriage’ with a local bride, purely for the duration of their stay. The tone of his book is cynical, and he’s exceedingly disrespectful to the Japanese wife, who he considers conniving and out for as much money as she can get.

The most important source to the opera is a short story by John Luther Long, which was turned subsequently into a play by David Belasco, a play which Puccini saw and which inspired him to write the opera. Long is much more critical about the imperialist powers. Whereas in Loti’s little novel, the criticism is of the behavior and attitude and planning of the Japanese bride, Long in his novel inverts this 180 degrees. His criticism is of the imperialist attitudes of the Western powers, who traded and exploited Japan at the end of the nineteenth century.

The character of Pinkeron, in Long, is an absolutely appalling man. He is patronizing, he’s arrogant, he’s rude; he asks Butterfly to give over her religion and her culture. In other words, it is a metaphor for the way an imperialist power runs roughshod over the civilization with which they have obstensibly come merely to trade. It could be said that the novel, the play, and the opera works at a metaphorical level, to underline this strong social point that Long was making.

Puccini’s opera started with the same intense social critique as derived from Long’s short story. But within two years it’s been sanitized out of all recognition. Consequently the new Paris version, which becomes the standard performing version, is a shadow of the work’s original intent. I think this is compounded to a certain degree by the very nature of Puccini’s music. Consider the glorious love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly which closes Act One. It’s very hard not to be seduced by its charm, by its beauty, by the way it’s structured, and its logical conclusion. The more involved we get with that duet musically and emotionally, the more we tend to leave our critical faculties behind, and forget the fact that this, from Pinkerton’s point of view, is simply a one-night stand, he’s gonna be off in two or three days; whereas for Butterfly it’s a commitment for life, and this of course is the very heart of the story. Now, the danger is that we begin to react purely in an emotional way, and not also retaining our critical faculties.

I spoke earlier about the way the piece itself over the course of two years morphed into something very different from its original purpose and intention. And in addition to this, I think that as so often with the standard repertoire pieces which get performed over and over and over again throughout the world, a certain laziness of performance tradition kicks in. Gustav Mahler (who not only was a great composer but was a great, great opera conductor and, amazingly, never wrote an opera himself) once said that “Tradition is just laziness.” And I think one of the problems I think Butterfly faces today is that it’s done so often, and it’s done—I have to be honest with my listeners!—that it’s often done with perhaps less rehearsal than is desirable, often performed by people who have done their roles many, many times. And so a performance tradition kicks in. Even new productions I have seen have made no real effort to think about this piece afresh. Productions tend to do what is always done. And that’s where some bad performance tradition kicks in. One of the challenges for an opera company today is to think very seriously about this piece, to find a way that its hard-hitting heart can come over, but without appearing like a political lesson.

I decided to bring this production by Kate Cherry, which was first done in New Zealand in 2013, because I looked around at other productions and couldn’t find one which captured this fine balance between making you think but at the same time respecting the exquisite nature of the piece itself. At first glance, the production seems to fulfill all the standard requirements of the work. But actually, it’s been thought out in a very, very careful way. Visually—and it’s incredibly beautiful to look at—it takes the viewpoint that the restrained visual language of Japanese art is itself being desecrated by the arrival of Pinkerton. The production shows little nods to things like kabuki theater. You’ll see a deliberately painted backdrop to the garden which appears from time to time, which is two-dimensional, in the way that if you visit kabuki theater you see definitely a painted backdrop rather than a realistic backdrop. The setting itself takes the idea of a butterfly caught in a lantern; so lanterns play an important part, and of course any insect caught in a lantern is going to die at some point, as they get burnt. And so Butterfly is metaphorically burnt by the experience with Pinkerton. So it’s exquisitely beautiful to look at, but it’s exquisitely beautiful for a very important dramaturgical reason.

At the risk of hammering this home, all art works at a metaphorical level; and although on the surface Butterfly appears to be a realistic piece about real people, it’s not dealing with archetypes or myths, but nevertheless there is a metaphorical lesson being delivered within the piece: the ravishment of Butterfly by Pinkerton is effectively a symbol for the way that the Western powers—and it wasn’t just the States! It was Britain, it was France, it was Russia, it was the Netherlands—all exploited and took advantage of their trading partner, the emerging Japanese nation.

Certainly in Europe and in New Zealand, the character of Pinkerton is emblematic not just of the States so much as of the Western powers as a whole. One of my colleagues here at Seattle Opera made the interesting observation to me. She said that in performances here in the US, audiences tend to see Pinkerton as a bad apple. And therefore not symbolizing something greater than just the individual, which I think is crucial to an understanding of the piece.

Madame Butterfly is one of the absolute great roles of soprano repertoire, and it needs a formidable singer. It needs a singer who can play a 15 year-old, and yet has the vocal weight to carry some very dense orchestration. It’s an incredibly long role. Once she’s made her entrance, which is pretty soon in Act One, she’s onstage for the entire time, except a short sequence at the beginning of the Third Act (or the second part of the second half). It carries an emotional challenge: to be resilient in the face of opposition, as the characters oppose her steadfastness; and then to find at the end of the opera both the vocal guns for the final scena and the acting ability to find the nobility in the character as well, is a huge challenge. I’m very pleased to say that we have two singers, in Lianna Haratounian and Yasko Sato, two singers who are specialists in this role, and both capture beautifully the many facets which this role requires.

Our two Pinkertons, the Russian Alexei Dolgov and the young American singer, Dominick Chenes, are both actually quite different singers, and I think that’s one of the beauties of having a double cast, is that we’ll get a different tone from each of them. This production does include Pinkerton’s short Act 3 aria, “Addio, fiorito asil,” but it doesn’t have to be done in a sentimental way. What was interesting in New Zealand was the way the Italian singer who sang it found a sort of epiphany, a moment of self-understanding, in the aria, rather than simply an appeal to the audience for forgiveness. So I’m looking forward to seeing that, slightly different tone, repeated once more again on our stage.

We decided not to double-cast either Sharpless or Suzuki, because we felt that the two performers we engaged were very capable of singing the back-to-back performances which we have on a couple of occasions. So it’s my great pleasure to welcome back Weston Hurt as Sharpless, and also Renee Rapier, who was in Mary Stuart, who’s going to sing the role of Suzuki. Throughout the season we are seeing quite a lot of Daniel Sumegi, a Seattle Opera favorite; he’s going to make a brief appearance as the Bonze, before he takes on a bigger role as Basilio in The Barber of Seville. And also, hot off the success and the wonderful impact he made in The Magic Flute as Monostatos, Rodell Rosel returns instantly to sing the role of Goro.

Even in my short time it’s been my huge pleasure to have worked with Carlo Montanaro on more than one occasion, and it’s great to see him return to the pit to conduct this production. Carlo is such a wonderful colleague; he understands what makes opera tic in a brilliant way, and I know this is a piece which he loves dearly. Also he brings an incisiveness and a freshness to his interpretation. I know he will really get his teeth into this thoughtful production.

I’ve mentioned Kate Cherry, the director, but the designer plays an important part in any Madame Butterfly. This production represents the US debut of the Australian designer Christina Smith. Christina’s designs were hailed on both occasions the production played in New Zealand, and I know you’ll enjoy the really fine and beautiful aesthetic which we’re putting on our stage.

So at the end of the day, we always have to ask ourselves, what constitutes the success of a production? Madame Butterfly has a lot going for you: it’s one of the great operas, and one cannot fail to be moved by it. But for me, what differentiates art from entertainment is that art contains a balance between emotion and thought. And I think a great performance of Madame Butterfly should leave the audience with a difficult sensation in their mind. So the audience should leave a performance of Madame Butterfly not only moved by the individual tragedy of Butterfly herself, but I think also outraged at the behavior of the exploiting Western powers which have brought that tragedy into being in the first place.

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