The audience will journey to turn-of-the-20th-century Japan in IU Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly,” which opens Friday at the Musical Arts Center.
The opera, composed by famed Italian Giacomo Puccini, details the emotional journey of Cio-Cio-san, a geisha in Nagasaki, Japan, and her marriage to an American naval officer. Cio-Cio-san roughly translates to “Madame Butterfly.”
According to Operabase, an opera statistics website, it is the fifth most performed show in the world. Puccini ranks second on the list of most performed composers on the same site.
Second-year master’s student Liz Culpepper, who sings the part of Suzuki in Friday’s cast, said the incongruent level of devotion between Butterfly and her husband, Pinkerton, plays a huge role in character development throughout the show. Culpepper said her character acts as a caretaker for Butterfly when Pinkerton leaves and is not heard from again. Suzuki protects the show’s lead from exterior threats, be they emotional or of another nature.
At first, Pinkerton displays good intentions to Butterfly, which turn out to be deception. While Butterfly believes the marriage is based on permanent love, Pinkerton merely takes advantage of Japan’s loose divorce laws and leaves.
“Butterfly gets really upset when Suzuki makes any sort of mention of ‘I’m not so sure he’s coming back,’” Culpepper said. “She doesn’t want to believe it.”
Culpepper said there is a delicate balance when trying not to disrespect another culture, but what she likes about stage director Lesley Koenig’s creative choices is her focus on characters as individuals, regardless of culture.
Third-year doctoral student Mathilda Edge, who sings the lead role of Butterfly on Friday, said it was a fun but challenging experience to learn more about Japanese and geisha culture. She said at the time the opera takes place, geisha were seen as the ultimate polite and proper women, with calculated hand and body gestures.
She said having to portray this collected quality and observing when her character deviates from it as the opera progresses was interesting.
Edge said when Pinkerton first leaves, her character tries to lure him back by losing her geisha tendencies and adopting new habits to “Americanize” herself, such as keeping her fingers together and having what Western culture would regard as stiff movements.
Butterfly remains devoted to Pinkerton, even after a long wait. Edge said when someone finally asks her character about what she might do if her husband does not return, it finally hits her.
“That’s where we hear the whole orchestra fall out, more or less,” Edge said. “It’s the first time we see Cio-Cio-san for who she actually is, and the depths of who her character is.”
Edge said she wants the audience to come ready to observe her character’s journey from someone she perceives herself as to someone she actually is at the core. She said part of why she does opera is to envelop her audience within the stories she portrays.
“I want to take people on a journey,” Edge said. “I want them to go somewhere they’ve never been in their mind and find something new to walk away with.”
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