Vancouver Opera's current production of Madama Butterfly is a showcase for the 21st Century.
Vancouver Opera Concert Master Mark Ferris smiles during the intermission. Mark has told me before that he likes Puccini, “Mozart operas can be so
finicky, but Puccini is very deep.” he told me for the 2005 production of Turandot.
Vancouver Opera has done a delightful job of bringing Madama Butterfly through the racism and political correctness of the 20th Century, truly into a post-colonial 21st century – ideal for the emerging intercultural global city of Vancouver, and hot on the heels of one of the Winter Olympics. It's a wonderful way to close out it's 50th Anniversary season, with one of the world's most popular operas, even though it recently performed it both in 2004 and
a few years before that.
The music is timeless, the performances are strong, But more
importantly, it is a showcase on how far opera has become both a global
art form and technologically advanced since Madama Butterfly's 1906
debut in Italy. Vancouver Opera has brought together the most Asian singers in lead and supporting roles; Mihoko Kinoshita (Cio-Cio-San) from Japan, Joseph Hu (Goro) from Taiwan, and Zheng Cao (Suzuki) from USA along with Japanese-born Japanese-American set designer Jun Kaneko.
Kaneko's work is primarily as a sculptor and painter. He was commissioned to create a set design for Opera Omaha's Madama Butterfly production in 2006. It is a minimalist design with a raked stage and concentric circles, but it is full of colourful banners, kimonos and umbrellas in the in first act. The set design also includes the use of video projection, with abstract and minimalist designs. It never overpowers the singing, but helps to convey emotions, as if they were colour field paintings by Mark Rothko.
In decades past, Madama Butterfly suffered as an example of colonial attitudes. It is the sad story of a young Japanese teenage bride, that is married and abandoned by an American Naval officer. Lt. B.J, Pinkerton, strongly performed by American James Valenti, easily conveys the cavalier attitude of a man who is captivated by the exotic beauty of an Asian woman, but still believes he will return to America to marry an “American wife.”
Cio-Cio-San is convincingly performed by Japan's Mihoka Kinoshita making her Vancouver Opera debut in the title role. Her butterfly's singing is light, and the necessary innocence is conveyed when she duets with Valenti. As well, Cio-Cio-San's duet with her maid Suzuki (Zheng Cao) is beautiful and received generous applause from the audience. Suzuki conveys the strong loyalty and support to keep Butterfly happy both in the first act of her marriage to Pinkerton, and the second act, after she is abandoned, and they become increasingly poorer.
Joseph Hu's Goro, is a sneaky matchmaker, and I thought I could see movement elements of Chinese Opera villainry as he played up to both Pinkerton and Prince Yamadori.
Opera is essentially a Western European art form, and over the years, it titillated its audience with stories of exotic places, set in foreign lands, such as Puccini's “Turandot” in Old Peking, or Rossini's “Italian Girl in Algiers,” or in Bizet's “Pearl Fishers” set in Ceylon. Puccini achieved all of this with Madama Butterfly but combined it with and incredible score, a simple straightforward story of love and yearning, that oozes emotion. The aria “Un Bel Dei” / “One Fine Day” is one of opera's most famous arias.
Does it make a difference to have Asian singers in the correct ethnic principal roles, even while Vancouver native Andrew Greenwood plays Prince Yamadori? I think it does. Vancouver is a global city with large populations of Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Japanese populations. By having principals cast as Asians, Vancouver Opera sends out an important message. They recognize the importance of both recognizing and respecting their Asian-Canadian audience – which is the largest growing demographic ethnicity in the region.
Years ago, I saw Vancouver Opera's production of Turandot, which while set in “Peking” did not feature any Asians in principal roles. While I stated that “it didn’t matter how accurately reflective of Chinese
culture”, a Persian tale set in Peking was… I found it emotionally rewarding to see this new Madama Butterfly having so much Asian representation both in principal roles and in set design. See my review: Vancouver Opera's Turandot: a Canadian production of an Italian Opera of a Persian fable set in Peking China
Vancouver Opera has another winner for its half-century. Aside from the excellence in musicianship, performances, the set design and direction really work to pull it altogether.
See my 2004 review Madama Butterfly Review: Vancouver Opera Nov 27 to Dec 11
Check out the Manga cartoon specially designed for this production!