Puccini meets Kabuki

'Madama Butterfly' blends Italian opera with Japanese theater

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

Silk, heartbreak, Japanese theater and Italian opera share the stage for a Juneau production of "Madama Butterfly."

Joyce Parry Moore sings the lead role and directs Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." It opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, for a three-weekend run at Northern Light United Church. Parry Moore said the production, sung in English, blends Japanese style Kabuki and Noh theater elements with Italian opera.

The classically trained opera singer said she's been working on the project for three years, studying Japanese theater and preparing for the role. This is the first fully staged production for her nonprofit arts group, Opera To Go!, and "Butterfly" is cosponsored by the Juneau Lyric Opera.

Parry Moore was teaching a drama class at the University of Alaska Southeast several years ago and said she was struck by the similarities between Kabuki theater and opera.

"Kabuki is larger than life, and a synthesis of dance and music and dramatics, just like opera is," she said.

Kabuki flourished in Japan in Shakespeare's time, and grew out of Noh, a style of Japanese theater that thrived in the 1300s. Actors in Kabuki take the stage Hanamichi style - from a center aisle such as the one in Northern Light Church.

"That represents the journey of the characters and of the play - they begin their journey," she said.

Conductor William Todd Hunt likes the intimacy of performing an operatic production at the church.

"To have the singers just a few feet away, in some cases just inches away, it's nice to be able to connect on that level," he said.

"Madama Butterfly" takes place about 1900 in Nagasaki, Japan. It tells the story of an American Naval officer, Pinkerton, who buys a Japanese wife for a few nights through a marriage broker, Hunt said. The plan is for a temporary marriage, but Cio Cio San, nicknamed Butterfly by Pinkerton because of her fragility, falls in love, converts to Christianity and is rejected by her society and her family. Her uncle makes a big scene at the wedding.

Shortly afterward, Pinkerton leaves Japan, as planned, but instead of remarrying or moving on, Butterfly waits. The second act opens three years later. Pinkerton finally returns, with an American wife, and finds some surprises in store.

"The story is relevant to current events - two cultures come together, and try to understand each other as human beings, instead of as stereotypes," Parry Moore said. "When they fail, the women and children are caught in the middle."

Guest tenor Robert Wickstrom from Seattle plays Pinkerton. He said the origin of "Butterfly" is credited to missionaries who returned to England from Japan in the late 1800s with the tale. It became a short story and then was adapted as a play, which was a big success in New York in 1900. It crossed the Atlantic and Puccini saw it in London and fell in love with the work.

Wickstrom said Puccini struggled for years to get his librettist and publisher behind the production, while they urged him to drop it. The first performance in 1904 was a flop. Puccini revised it, emphasizing the role of Butterfly, trimming other characters and adding an aria for Pinkerton, and restaged it to great success. It has become one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory.

Wickstrom said Puccini loved Japanese music and wanted to incorporate Japanese instruments, but couldn't.

"He couldn't get them in tune, and to stay in tune, and the couldn't find the players at a level high enough to match the orchestra," Wickstrom said.

Conductor Hunt said Puccini imitates elements of Japanese music, but uses the chromatic scales of Western music, with lots of key changes to suit the scenes.

"There are three Americans in the show, and even the Americans will sometimes sing on these five-note scales that sound oriental," Hunt said.

Hunt ties the music to the action, directing the ensemble. Kim Andrews plays piano, carrying most of the orchestration. Flute player Sally Schlicting and violinist Lisa Ibias add color and bring out interesting melodic lines, Hunt said.

Other roles include Bill Garry as Sharpless and These Thibadeau, Brett Crawford and Phil Shempf as Suzuki, Goro and Bonze, respectively. A dozen singers form a vocal ensemble, and two small children take turns as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton's child.

"Madama Butterfly" shows at 7:30 p.m. April 12 and 13, 19 and 20, 26 and 27.

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