By Peter Jacobi H-T Columnist
When the curtain rises in the Musical Arts Center on Friday evening for what will be the 11th Indiana University Opera Theater’s presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” you will benefit not only from the beauties the composer poured into the score but from Puccini’s always persistent search for stories he deemed right for him to explore, stories that begged for his music to enhance their appeal.
One could write far more about the literary origin of “Madama Butterfly” than there is room for, full length, in this column. And the whole of such a discussion would not be out of place because Giacomo Puccini’s compositional career featured long bouts of seeking the right story content, so to produce the strongest possible theatrical package.
Three times, he made decisions based on what other composers had already done or were planning to do. Jules Massenet had already written his opera “Manon” when its success led Puccini to create his own version, “Manon Lescaut.” Ruggiero Leoncavallo had started to write his “La Boheme,” about those love-driven and impecunious Parisian Bohemians, when he chanced to tell Puccini what he was doing, only to have his “friend” Puccini steal the idea and brilliantly mine it, leaving his fellow composer in the lurch. To set “Tosca” into an opera, Puccini had to talk Alberto Franchetti out of doing this Victorian Sardou drama with arguments that the story was really too sordid to be used for an operatic libretto.
Having finished “Tosca” and sweetly tasted its triumph, Puccini faced the repeated dilemma: what to choose as the subject for his next opera. Among the possibilities were Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” already promised to Debussy, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead,” projects with Emile Zola and Gabriele d’Annunzio, and about a dozen more.
While engaged in the search, Puccini was invited — during a visit to London — to attend a theater performance of a one-act play by the American playwright and director David Belasco. It was called “Madam Butterfly.” It was performed in English, very little or anything of which Puccini could understand. But the composer was smitten. He sought out Belasco and came away with a deal. Belasco later explained the transaction: that he told Puccini, “He could do anything he liked with the play and make any sort of contract he chose, for it was impossible to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian with tears in his eyes and both arms around my neck.”
Belasco’s theatrical package originated as a short story by an American lawyer and sometime writer John Luther Long, published in Century Magazine, a well-read journalistic entity at the time. Now, actually, origins came earlier because what Long did was to take other literary sources that rose out of history, the 1854 treaty that naval commander Matthew Perry arranged to open Japan to the West and that encouraged tourism to a country of prior mystery and intrigue. But let’s leave the story’s background to that.
Anyway, the very practical producer Belasco and the very practical composer Puccini and the agreeable short story writer Long and the literary and historical sources that led Long to his story and two of Puccini’s always hungry-for-work librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, and who knows what and who else merged across space and time to make possible the opera that so many so deeply love, “Madama Butterfly.” And that we get to see starting Friday night.
For that, the folks at IU Opera Theater have gathered a team of cooperating talents, all of whom express love for the opera and for the producing team of which they are a part:
• Conductor Arthur Fagen, the Jacobs School’s professor of orchestral conducting, who has a distinguished and lengthy career in the worlds of opera and the symphony that includes, at present, the musical directorship of the Atlanta Opera.
• Visiting stage director Lesley Koenig, managing director of the Weston Playhouse in Vermont who also brings experience, as forged during a 35-year career as opera director.
• Visiting designer Steven Kemp, a widely sought-after and much praised scenic designer for operas, musicals and plays nationwide.
• Costume designer Linda Pisano, professor of costume design and head of design and technology for IU Theater, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
Each and all express enthusiasm for the state of things backstage, lauding not only each other but the students — on stage, behind the stage, and in the orchestra pit — that are involved in this “Butterfly” production. In response to my questions, they had this to say:
Maestro Fagen: “I’ve done three productions of ‘Butterfly.’ I love it. The melodies are exquisite. The orchestral score is one of the most beautiful ever written, with that slightly exotic element hinting at Japan. We have the Philharmonic to do it, which is good, and we’ve been working very hard to honor the music, in all of its details. The orchestration is thick. That means we’re dealing with balances, and that’s tricky work, but we’re getting there. The casts selected are contributing some remarkable singing, with two Butterflies handling a long and very difficult role. I’m satisfied with the progress we’re making.”
Stage director Koenig: “The rehearsals have been delightful with two extremely strong casts, working hard, and laughing equally hard. I believe that creating strong ensembles is the key to successful productions, and here are two casts fully supportive of one another. It’s a magical process. … ‘Madama Butterfly’ is a big sing. No problems whatsoever. And we found a terrific child to play Trouble. … This is my first ‘Butterfly’ and is a piece that has always been on a short list I have been craving to do, so I am thrilled.
“I’ve seen different productions,” Koenig continues, “and Pinkerton always arrives in a crisp white suit, acting as if he were a highly ethical, well-mannered officer. But read what he says; three times in the first 20 minutes, he boasts that though he has bought a house and family, he can get out of the deal any day he decides. He speaks of taking women in every port and, finally, just as Butterfly enters, he toasts his future American wife. We are playing him as he is, not a bad guy but a bit of a cad.who thinks only of himself.”
Scenic designer Kemp: “The opera is one of my favorites, and I loved every second of designing it for the first time. I love Puccini and, especially, ‘Butterfly,’ for the haunting melodies that get embedded deep in your soul, entrenched for days even after just a short casual listen. … For the set, we wanted to create a strikingly simple environment that is in tension between the poetically ethereal and the viscerally elemental. Transitioning the audience to the performers is a full stage strip of an illusion of water, where we find our most realistic visual: the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln lurking in the harbor of Nagasaki.
“There are punches of Japanese heritage and tradition,” adds Kemp, “such as the fragmented sand pits inspired by traditional kitchens and Zen gardens as well as the cherry tree that grows in age with Butterfly’s child throughout the opera. All of this is enveloped in layers of a translucent series of mountains that simultaneously conjure the ocean and the clouds to evoke a beautiful hazy existence in which Butterfly is trapped.”
Costumer Pisano: “I’m excited by the opportunity. We’re stressing clean lines, elegance, the simple and yet with quite a bit of the ornamental to enrich the lines. … The project is daunting because there is so much tradition with this opera, and audiences have strong expectations. We have to be aware of what’s acceptable for those familiar with the opera. Lesley has been particularly helpful by sharing with me her thoughts about each of the characters. They’ve become three-dimensional people for whom I’ve designed appropriate clothing.”
Lesley Koenig, when asked what she hopes to accomplish for those of us who attend “Butterfly,” responded: “I want you to leave the performance with sufficient Kleenex, well used. I want you to feel you have truly seen the opera and have been thoroughly caught up in the story, awash with wonderful, touching music.”
Contact Peter Jacobi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
This Indiana University Opera Theater production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” will be performed three times here in Bloomington and twice in Indianapolis.
If you attend here: The performances are in the Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus. Dates: Next Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and next Sunday afternoon at 2. Tickets: Available at the MAC box office or at music.indiana.edu/opera or by phoning 812-855-7433. For adults: From $16 up. For students: $10 and up.
If you attend in Indianapolis: performances are in Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus. Dates: Nov. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets: Available at the Clowes Memorial Hall box office or through Ticketmaster outlets or via email at cloweshall.org or by phone at 800-982-2787. For adults: From $22 up. For students: From $10 up.