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Beloved Story of Geisha's Life: Opera Season Takes Flight With 'Butterfly'

October 23, 2006

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    October 23, 2006
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    Opera Carolina News

Beloved Story of Geisha's Life: Opera Season Takes Flight With 'Butterfly'

Long before "Memoirs of a Geisha" gripped fiction readers, long before real-life accounts of the geisha life laid out its moral ambiguities, one name summed up the plight of girls ensnared in the ancient Japanese tradition: "Madama Butterfly."

For a century, Puccini's opera has been the embodiment of romantic illusion taken to tragic heights. The heroine's devotion to an American soldier who doesn't return it ignites one of opera's most beloved arias, "Un bel di" -- helping make "Butterfly" one of audiences' most beloved operas.

Opera Carolina is counting on that. The company will give "Butterfly" four performances -- rather than the three it offers of most operas -- when it opens its season this week.

It did the same with Puccini's "La Boheme" in 2004. Puccini's operas work their spells on newcomers and veterans alike. As anyone who has ever hummed a tune can tell you, Puccini's flights of melody -- and the lushness and excitement that envelop them -- are the heart of the appeal. But to James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director, there's more to their charisma than that.

Puccini was crafty. Where Mozart wove multiple characters into tangled relationships in each of his operas, Meena says, Puccini zeroed in on one emotionally charged situation. In "Boheme," it's the romance between two young bohemians; in "Butterfly," the geisha's vain hope that her beloved Lt. Pinkerton will return. The glories of Mozart may take some figuring out. But a Puccini opera captures a viewer the first time.

"It's easier to get your arms around it," Meena says. "That's part of his genius."

Another part: In most of his operas, a good-hearted heroine captures the audience's sympathy. None do that more potently than "Butterfly." The innocent 15-year-old of Act 1 grows into the mother who gives up her child for the sake of its future in Act 3 -- then gives up her life for the sake of honor.

"It can be a powerful journey," soprano Cynthia Lawrence says. She's one of two performers sharing the role here. Lawrence will portray Butterfly on Thursday and Saturday; Kallen Esperian will step in Friday and Sunday.

There are good reasons it takes two sopranos. Butterfly is onstage almost the whole way, Esperian says. For sopranos who are mothers -- as Lawrence and Esperian both are -- their empathy with Butterfly, who hands over her child to another woman, can make playing her a wrenching experience. Tackling it all again the next night is more than most sopranos will dare.

Lawrence and Esperian were sharing the role at the New York's Metropolitan Opera when Meena was looking for sopranos to play it here, he says. He figured that was a strong recommendation.

But it doesn't mean they'll play Butterfly the same way, he adds. "They're not cut from the same cloth."

Cynthia Lawrence

Lawrence grew up in Boulder, Colo. She now lives in the St. Paul, Minn., area, near her husband's family. St. Paul is a handy home base for a traveling singer, she says, because it's a Northwest Airlines hub. She can even get nonstop flights to Asia and Europe. She performed in Charlotte first in 2005, playing the title role in Puccini's "Tosca."

First performed "Madama Butterfly": Twelve years ago, she said, for the New York City Opera. She has done it in "eight or nine" productions.

Butterfly:When people tell her they don't care for "Butterfly," Lawrence said, "I'm baffled." Doubters think Butterfly is "stupid" because the geisha believes her marriage to Pinkerton is permanent. But to Lawrence, Butterfly's faith in the marriage is what makes the story a tragedy.

Personal view: Lawrence is the mother of two girls, 81/2 and 11 years old. She sees the scene where Butterfly gives up her child as the crux of the role -- showing that Butterfly realizes her hopes have been in vain. As a mother, Lawrence says, "you know that you'd throw yourself in front of a truck (for the sake of a child) if the need arose." After Butterfly's child is gone, she has only one more step to take.

Self-control: Lawrence says she can easily get caught up in the role's emotions. During rehearsals, she likes to gauge how far she can give in to the feelings without losing control -- which can wreak havoc on the voice. "You can't sing," she said, "if you're too involved emotionally."

Perils of performance: Butterfly's costumes, with several pieces of kimono plus undergarments, have several layers. When a hard-working singer is inside, she perspires. In an outdoor performance, Lawrence reached a spot where Butterfly takes off the outer part of the kimono, and weather conditions took over. "I was literally a cloud of steam," she said. "You couldn't see."

Kallen Esperian

Esperian grew up in Chicago and lives now in Memphis, another strategic Northwest hub. This is her debut with Opera Carolina.

First performed "Madama Butterfly": Seven years ago for the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, Holland. She has taken part in "maybe five" productions, she said.

On Butterfly: Esperian also rejects the idea that the girl is gullible for putting her hopes in Pinkerton. Audiences "have to remember what they were like when they were 15," she says.

Personal view: Esperian's father fought with the U.S. military in the Pacific in World War II. While he was overseas, she said, he had a romance with a Japanese woman. He kept a photo: "She was so beautiful and so young," Esperian said. When he left for home, she may have been pregnant. But he didn't keep in touch with her. "I could have a half-brother or sister in Japan." Her father was "a decent guy," she added. She thinks horrific situations make people do things they otherwise wouldn't -- especially when they're looking for comfort amid the terrors. "War is war," she says. "It's awful."

Self-control: Esperian also sees the danger of giving in to Butterfly's emotions. Nevertheless, "I sometimes go over the edge a bit, I suppose -- especially at the end. It's no-holds-barred."

Perils of performance: As the opera's climax approaches, Butterfly picks up the fatal knife, then throws it aside so she can hold her child one last time. Esperian once finished the embrace, looked for the knife, and couldn't spot it. She could only find the scabbard. So she held that to her throat for Butterfly's suicide, hoping the audience couldn't tell the difference. "My son said, `It looked like you killed yourself with a stick,' " she said. She eventually found the knife: It was hidden in the folds of her sleeve.

Madama Butterfly

Opera Carolina opens its season with Puccini's tragedy of circa-1900 Japan. Performances are sung in Italian with projected English translations.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Oct. 29.

WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $10-$92.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.

STEVEN BROWN
sbrown@charlotteobserver.com