‘A Tragedy Of Japan’

CHAUTAUQUA – This evening, at 8:15 p.m., the Chautauqua Amphitheater will reverberate with the gorgeous sounds of one of the most famous operas in the world by Giacomo Puccini.

Puccini was Italian, and he fitted his thrilling music to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, which was written in Italian. They named the opera ”Madama Butterfly.” You may be more familiar with that title, translated into English, as ”Madame” or ”Madam Butterfly.” The result is virtually certain to be one of the most thrilling performances of the 2014 summer season.

This week, I’d like to share with you some of the research which I’ve done on the opera and its history. Then I’d like to share with you three short interviews I’ve done with the lady of the title role, the tenor who will sing the role of her husband, and the conductor of the Chautauqua Opera Orchestra, and of the entire production, as well.

I hope that if you can possibly do so, that you’ll wend your way to Chautauqua to hear this remarkable production.

ABOUT THE OPERA

The plot of the opera goes back far earlier than Puccini’s first performance of the score, on Feb. 17, 1904, at Milan’s famed opera house, ”La Scala.” The earliest known version of the plot which still exists, emerged in 1898, as a short story titled ”Madame Butterfly,” by John Luther Long. He claimed the plot came from stories told to him by his older sister.

There is a record of an earlier version of the plot, a novel published in 1887, called ”Madame Chrysantheme” by French writer Pierre Loti, which he claimed was semi-autobiographical.

American playwright David Belasco turned the Long short story into a one-act play, which he titled ”Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.” Belasco’s play was a hit in New York City, so he transferred it to London, where Puccini attended a performance in the year 1900. He eventually would write and revise the opera five separate times, and while the fifth and final revision is the most popular, today, many opera companies have chosen to perform one of the earlier versions. In 2005, Chautauqua Opera chose to perform the second of the five versions, which was created for performance at the opera house of Brescia, Italy, directed by Jay Lesenger, the artistic director of the Chautauqua company. Tonight’s performance will also be of the Brescia version of the opera.

The official ”legend” of the opera is that its first performance, at La Scala, was a failure – virtually booed off the stage – because there has famously existed at that famed performance space a claque. That is a large group of people who attend every opera performed there. Sometimes because they prefer the singing of certain artists or because they prefer the composing of certain composers, this claque will applaud wildly at certain performances, or will shout catcalls and insults at others. There is a strong rumor that a certain amount of money passing into their pockets could transform an opera from a failure to a success.

Other writers have claimed that the problem was not the claque, but the fact that the Milan audience believed that the music was just a repeating of musical themes and stylings from earlier successes, including ”Tosca” and ”La Boheme.”

Still other have claimed that at its opening, ”Madama Butterfly” suffered from too few rehearsals and too little preparation and revision. These claims are based upon the fact that not long before the opera opened, Puccini was involved in a horrible auto accident, in which he was pinned beneath his car and nearly died.

The plot of the opera can be expressed fairly simply. The title character is a 15-year-old girl, in Nagasaki, Japan, near the turn of the 20th century. At the time, the U.S. Navy was forcing Japan to open their ports to trade with Americans, by force. Her name is Cio-Cio San, and she is called Butterfly in both Italian and English, because her name in Japanese translates as Butterfly. The opera begins with a wedding. An officer in the American navy, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton has arranged with a Japanese marriage broker for a young bride. While he jokes with the American consul that he has rented a house and married a bride, that both arrangements are on a basis of 99 years, but both contracts are renewable monthly. He makes no effort to hide that when he is transferred back to his homeland, he intends to marry an American bride.

One of the big differences among the five different versions of the opera is how much the young bride knows about and understands the temporary nature of her marriage. However well informed she was, she has stubbornly determined that her relationship will be permanent, and she has gone so far as to renounce her religion, which some sources claim is Buddhism, and others claim is Shinto, and has converted to her new husband’s Christianity. When this conversion is discovered, she is renounced by her family, and is left with no one in the world, except her new husband, and her faithful maid, Suzuki.

By the time he leaves, she is pregnant, with a son. She names him ”Sorrow,” or in some versions ”Trouble,” but she vows that when his father returns she will change his name to ”Joy.”

For three years, she waits in the little house, watching the harbor with her spyglass. During that time, she is visited by the original marriage broker, who offers her a marriage to a wealthy Japanese prince, but she stubbornly continues to wait. Finally, she sees his ship return. She prepares to renew her marriage and to return to America with her husband, only to learn that in fact, he has remarried ”in reality,” as he puts it, and he wants to take the child with him, as part of his new family. Friendless, betrayed and unable to live honorably, she determines to die honorably.

Lesenger has said he has chosen the Brescia version of the opera because it makes Butterfly more adult, and presents her as making decisions for her own life, rather than as a hapless victim, as the most common version presents her.

Despite its rocky beginning, ”Madama Butterfly” has become one of the best-known operas in the world, and its music is familiar, even to millions who don’t know the opera itself. This is especially true of the aria ”Un Bel Di,” which translates ”One Beautiful Day,” in which Butterfly awaits her faithless husband and imagines how happy they will be, when he returns. Publishers report that it is the seventh most-frequently produced opera in the world.

Raymond Hubbell and John Golden wrote a song about the abandoned beauty called ”Poor Butterfly.” It was a hit for singer Sarah Vaughan, and was recorded by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, among others.

The plot has been made into motion pictures, both filmings of the opera, and straight dramatic presentations of the story. A 1954 film with Cary Grant as the disappearing husband was the most successful of those.

In 1981, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the score to the Broadway show ”Cats.” From time to time, writers have insisted that certain parts of that score, especially the most successful song from the score, ”Memories,” are actual ”borrowings” of Puccini’s music, especially ”Un Bel Di.”

The 1987 film ”Fatal Attraction,” used music from the opera to help point out the depth of Glenn Close’s character’s feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

In 1988, playwright Henry David Hwang wrote the play ”M. Butterfly,” which uses a similar plot, except with a Chinese opera singer and a French diplomat as the leading characters. Hwang’s singer ridicules Puccini’s heroine as a western stereotype of a meek, submissive Asian woman.

In 1989, the Broadway musical ”Miss Saigon” told the same story, updated to a young Vietnamese girl and an American soldier, during this nation’s Vietnam conflict.

MARY DUNLEAVY

If you are lucky enough to be in the Amphitheater, this evening, you will see and hear a number of firsts, relating to celebrated soprano Mary Dunleavy.

She will be making her debut with Chautauqua Opera, and will be performing the role of Cio-Cio San for the first time ever. Her daughter, at age 5, will be appearing for the first time on stage, portraying her son, ”Sorrow.”

Lovely, despite meeting with us at the end of a difficult and challenging day of rehearsals, she has long, red-gold hair and striking, bright blue eyes. No doubt, the make up artists of the opera company will have transformed her to the shy Japanese flower of her role by this evening.

Our interview would eventually be broken into numerous segments, as she was released from rehearsal to speak with us, then summoned back as some element of the staging needed to be repeated, only to venture back to the interview, more than once, while I searched through her past statements in the attempt to reconstruct the sense of the interview. They tend to call leading opera singers ”divas,” but that couldn’t be farther from the truth, in her case, at least in the sense of being temperamental. She could not have been warmer or more helpful.

Born in Connecticut, Dunleavy moved at a very early age with her family to Northern New Jersey, where she still lives with her husband, Hal. ”I have always sung,” she told me. ”My parents took me frequently to see Broadway shows, and I wanted so very much to be up there, singing those wonderful songs.”

She attended Northwestern University, with an eye on moving into musical theater, but when it came time to choose a major, she chose the classically-based music department, over a major in musical theater. ”As I came to know classical music better and I found that I was able to do it, it turned out to be the best route for me to follow,” she said, adding, after a pause, ”This is not to say that there are a lot of Broadway shows with a more classical music structure, and many opera companies do Broadway shows in operatic nature, so some day I might just find my way into something like that.”

The soprano said she is glad to make her debut at Chautauqua, because her husband and daughter have enjoyed so very much being near the lake and enjoying the many opportunities for recreation, while she is in rehearsals. ”My daughter keeps telling us that we should just stay here, after the performance is over,” she said.

She also said that she has known Lesenger for a long time, but has never performed before under his direction.

”I love Jay’s approach to a performance, and he is such a help to a singer in preparing for a role,” she told me. ”I normally prefer to sing opera in the original language in which it was composed, but I’m finding that I really enjoy communicating directly with an audience, because we’re performing it in English. It has caused me to re-think some of my ideas on the subject.”

At one point in the interview, her daughter began to grow impatient with Mommy’s long conversation, after what had already been a long afternoon of rehearsal. The singer excused herself, told the girl, ”Daddy’s right outside that door, on the lawn. Why don’t you go out and play with him,” and then looked a bit amazed at what had just happened. ”In New Jersey, I would never just tell her to go outside on her own. That’s one of the big attractions of being at Chautauqua,” she said.

”My daughter has heard me rehearsing, all her life, and she has seen me on many stages and in many costumes. I’ve found that she learns music quickly, and she can sing short passages from operas which she has picked up from my practicing. Sometimes at school or in a social setting I’ll hear her singing a little ”Magic Flute,” or ”La Traviata,” she said. I have learned, though, that this production is in English, and I have to prepare her very carefully to hear Mommy saying some of the harsh things, because the meaning is perfectly clear.”

Mary Dunleavy has a repertoire which includes many of the greatest roles in opera. She is one of only three singers in history to have performed both the Queen of the Night, in Mozart’s ”The Magic Flute,” and Pamina, that Queen’s daughter, in different performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. She has triumphed as Musetta, Violetta, Countess Almaviva, Thais, all four heroines in ”Tales of Hoffmann,” and dozens more.

In addition to the Met, she has sung leading roles at the operas of Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and dozens more. Beyond our borders, she has headlined in Amsterdam, Paris, Naples, Barcelona, Berlin, Montreal and more. Fans of the popular film ”Lincoln” heard her singing from ”Faust,” on that film’s score.

As she comes to inhabit the role of Butterfly, does she have something to share directly with her public? She said, ”I think every human being ought to have hearing a performance of this opera on his or her ‘bucket list.’ This production is only being performed once. It isn’t being filmed or recorded. If you’re in the Amphitheater, you’re part of a community which is the only community which will ever hear it. When it’s over, it will never exist again, except in the memories of the people who heard it. To me that is thrilling. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.”

SCOTT QUINN

If Dunleavy found her way to opera by aiming at the Broadway stage, tenor Scott Quinn, who will be singing the role of Butterfly’s caddish husband, had an ever-more unusual path to his current situation.

Born in a small town in East Texas, Quinn had never heard an opera, until he started college, at Stephen F. Austin State University.

”My parents weren’t musical, and our town didn’t have any kind of theater,” he said. ”I did sing in choruses and choirs in school. When it was time to apply for college, my high school music teacher suggested that I should sing an audition for the music department at the college, in the hope of getting some financial support, so I did. I ended up with a healthy scholarship, and was suddenly surrounded by opportunities to perform. For a while, I thought I could parlay all that into a career as a country and western singer,” he laughed.

There was even a period in college in which he decided that the possibility of a career in opera was so difficult to reach, and even harder to maintain, and he considered giving it all up. ”I read that Shreveport Opera, in Louisiana, which is just across the line from where my college was located, was having a classical singing competition. I decided to enter, and I won, so I’m back, singing opera, ever since,” he said.

As many singers do, as he talked, Quinn would sing a short passage to illustrate what he meant. I found myself greatly impressed by the power and the clear beauty of his voice.

I found it difficult to imagine him in a large hat, drawling a country song, so I asked him if it wouldn’t be very different for him, as a singer, from leading roles in opera. He reported that to sing a major role in opera, he would need to spend a minimum of two hours, warming up his voice, doing vocal exercise, preparing his body and his mind to the demands of opera.

”I could roll out of bed and be sending out ‘All My Exes Live in Texas,’ within 30 seconds,” he said, singing the well-known song with a Texas twang that could curl your hair.

Quinn is also singing his role in ”Butterfly” for the first time, and he finds he enjoys the fact that his character is less than a hero.

”When you’re a tenor, you’re almost always the hero, because the quality of your voice is higher and brighter,” he said. ”Pinkerton isn’t really a bad man, but he destroys lives, because he just never thinks about the results of what he chooses to do, or cares about anything but himself.”

It has been suggested often in the past few years that the increasing number of operas which are broadcast live onto movie screens, hasn’t brought about a pressure on singers to look good, to lift weights and have plastic surgery, and to look their roles when they appear five times normal size on a screen. He said there is some of that pressure, but it’s worse for singers with lower voices.

”The truth is, if you’re a tenor and you can deliver the top notes, nobody cares much what you look like,” he said.

Is he enjoying his time at Chautauqua? He answered, ”Today, the temperature is 80 degrees in the middle of the day, here. I called home to Texas, last night, and the temperature at night was 95 degrees. This is a great place to be.”

I wondered if he could sing any role in any opera house in the world, what it would be. He thought for a while, and finally said, ”I guess I’d like to sing Cavaradossi, the hero in ‘Tosca,’ and to do it at La Scala, without getting booed.” I suspect that is a dream which could very likely come true, some day, soon.

ARTHUR FAGEN

Conducting both the singing company this evening, and the Chautauqua Opera Orchestra will be Maestro Arthur Fagen. This will be his fourth performance at Chautauqua, and he reported that he always tries to accept any opportunity to come to Chautauqua.

In demand around the world as a conductor of both orchestral performances and operas, Fagen is artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, and is professor of orchestral conducting at the Jacobs School of Music, at Indiana University. I wonder if that didn’t force him into nearly constant travel. He replied that, in fact, it has enabled him to reduce the amount of travel which he needed to do.

”For many years, I was the principal conductor of the Queens Symphony Orchestra, and a regular guest conductor at the Vienna State Opera. I used to cross back and forth to Europe, twice per month, in those days,” he said.

Appearances in South Africa, Israel, Argentina, Japan, and the major concert halls and opera houses of Europe still means he spends a lot of time in airports.

I hoped to ask him about the orchestra’s role in tonight’s performance, but our early deadline meant that he had not yet rehearsed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

So, I asked whether the loss of a number of opera companies in the past year was a passing situation, or a dangerous trend.

He answered, ”Opera was popular music, listened to by working people, as well as the nobility, throughout Europe, until very recently. If you listen to popular shows such as ‘The Light in the Piazza,’ you find the line between popular music and classical music is blurring, rapidly. Opera may change in the days ahead, and nobody knows yet whether the Met’s high-definition broadcasts from their stage will draw new audiences to the artform, or will kill off local companies, because people can hear more famous singers for the cost of a movie ticket. But, I think it will always be with us. It’s too wonderful to be lost.”